The Wine Issue

December is harvest time for ice wine in the Okanagan region of western Canada

By Remy Scalza
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 3, 2010

For the grapes, it must be agony.

High above Okanagan Lake, in a frozen corner of western Canada, the wind is whipping through the vineyards in icy blasts. Long after first frost, deep into winter, the grapes here have waited, shivering on the vine. Now, in late December with the temperature falling fast, their polar purgatory is nearly over. It's harvest time in ice wine country.

Ice wine -- exquisite, pricey and deliciously potent -- is made from grapes harvested and pressed at a full 15 degrees below freezing. Every sip betrays its frosty heritage. Ice wine is crisp and invigorating in a way that table wine is not. It's nectar-sweet but never cloying. It's also unfailingly addictive.

Some of the best ice wines in the world are born in Canada's Okanagan region, a mountain valley cut through by glacial lakes and dominated by thousands of acres of vineyards. In the summer, the Okanagan is a natural playground, with mountains, beaches and sunny lakeside wineries drawing legions of travelers from Canada and beyond.

Winter, however, is another story. Wine touring at this time of year offers no opportunities for al fresco dining, no long afternoons spent sipping chardonnay on the patio. But, for the intrepid, Canada's ice wine country holds unexpected rewards: unhurried tours, intimate fireside tastings and access to the coveted snow and slopes of interior British Columbia.

My breath billows out in great plumes as I cross the vineyards at Tantalus, a tiny winery set on a hillside overlooking the Okanagan's namesake lake. "We get the odd moose running through here," says Jane Hatch, who takes care of general operations and leads tours. The setting seems right. Rows of leafless vines dusted with snow stretch in every direction. In the distance, the horizon is cluttered with icy massifs, peaks lost in the clouds.

The wind picks up, turning cheeks rosy and noses red, and we duck inside. Hatch produces a slender bottle, half the size of a normal wine bottle, and empties a few golden ounces into my glass. Ice wine (or Icewine, to use the Canadian trademark) is an eye-catcher, picking up the light in the room like a rare gem. The taste is just as precious and improbable: honey, then citrus, then butterscotch, tussling back and forth over a long, long finish.

"It's risky for wineries to make ice wine," Hatch says, pointing to this year's meager yield, which would fill only a few beer kegs. "You've got birds pecking the daylights out of the grapes left on the vine. The temperatures have to cooperate. And you only get a drop out of each grape."

Add to that the travails of the harvest itself. Grapes are picked in the dead of night, when the vineyard is coldest. Hatch and her crew labored by the light of the moon one recent week, braving temperatures of 20 degrees below freezing to process the precious crop. "It's so cold that the clusters, when you touch them, just shatter off the vine," she says.

Into the grape outdoors

Fortified with drink, bundled against the cold, we venture back outside. It's snowing now, a few reluctant flakes coaxed from the bone-dry air. The valley itself gets little snowfall. Not so the surrounding mountains. The Okanagan edges up to the Canadian Rockies, with the impressive peaks and finely powdered slopes to prove it. The wilderness here is both raw and, with several major ski resorts in the valley, uniquely accessible.

"You see lynx, coyote, bobcat and fox out there," says 48-year-old mountain guide Ed Kruger, who heads Monashee Adventure Tours.

Kruger -- hulking, good-humored, with a scruff of a ponytail jutting from beneath his balaclava -- is a modern incarnation of the mountain man. We're in his van, zipping higher and higher along alpine roads toward Big White, the valley's biggest ski mountain. Its champagne powder is the envy of the downhill world, but Kruger's particular specialty is backcountry snowshoeing.

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