For those unfortunate souls who lived back in “ye days of olde,” before the advent of central heat and jets that can whisk shivering northerners off to warmer climes in a matter of hours, winter must have been interminable and unbearable.
Plus, they were dealing with the Black Death, and we can now all relate to what that feels like.
No wonder they invented mulled wine, a beverage designed to lighten the mood and bring a festive spirit, literally, to the holidays. At least that’s what they call it in England. For German speakers, it’s known as Glühwein, and to the Scandinavians, it’s simply referred to as gløgg.
No matter the term, the definition of a mulled wine is the same in any language — a wine-based beverage chock full of spices and heated to warm body and soul.
The Romans figured out how to make mulled wine as early as the 2nd century BC, probably out of necessity after realizing how cold it got in the outer reaches of the ever-expanding Roman Empire. They even had a name for it — conditum paradoxum which, loosely translated, means “surprise wine.” Besides red wine, conditum paradoxum included honey, dates, black pepper, fennel, bay leaves and saffron. It must’ve played an important role in Roman society as it’s the very first recipe listed in “Apicius,” the only remaining cook book from the Roman Empire.
So we can all thank the Romans for introducing the idea of spiced, hot wine to the Brits, Germans and Scandinavians who, in the millennium that followed, took the idea and ran with it. But in terms of linking mulled wine directly to holiday tradition, that credit may belong to Charles Dickens.
It turns out that Dickens was a big fan of Smoking Bishop, a warm drink made from port, red wine, caramelized citrus fruit, sugar, cloves and other spices. It’s even referenced in his 1843 story “A Christmas Carol” when, on the morning following his ghostly intervention and subsequent redemption, that’s what old Ebenezer Scrooge calls for while reconciling with his abused clerk, Bob Cratchit.
“A Merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!” – Charles Dickens
On this side of the pond, mulled wine is a well-established winter tradition too and recently, Roman Roth, partner and winemaker at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, shared some insight and memories about the beverage he fondly recalls from his native Germany.
“A good red wine makes a good mulled wine or Glühwein as we say in Germany. So pick a nice wine, but it does not have to be an expensive wine,” Roth said. “The key is not to make it too sweet. I grew up being served Glühwein at dinner on very cold snowy days with delicious cheese platters, warm bread and good fresh butter.
“It was always heart-warming and a great way to end the day, getting warm again and leaving the cold darkness outside,” he said. “It is fun to mix things up with this great seasonal drink.”
David Chinn, manager of Wölffer Estate Vineyard’s tasting room, offered his own insight into how one should go about making a mulled wine.
“When selecting a wine for mulling, a variety of styles and types can be used, but a medium to full-bodied dry red wine tends to be the best choice when preparing mulled wine since they tend to keep their original profiles even after adding sweeteners and spices,” explained Chinn. “Keeping the wine choice inexpensive is good to keep in mind as well, since the recipe is calling for about four bottles if you are serving a larger group.”
Chinn notes that each year, Roth tends to reserve a bit of wine after the harvest to make into his own Glühwein.
“He keeps the blend of his Glühwein a closely held secret, but it tends to be a bit of either merlot, Malbec, or cabernet sauvignon that has little to no barrel age on the wine,” said Chinn.
The next step in making a mulled wine, notes Chinn, is to add a sweetener of your choice.
“Granulated sugar is simple and easy, but if you want to add a bit of depth to the sweetness, honey, agave or maple syrup are great choices as well,” Chinn said. “But just remember to use less if you are taking that route since they have sweeter profiles than regular sugar.
“Adding the sweetener before the spices is a key step. You want to taste the wine with a bit of heat and some of the sweet before you add your spices and start the mulling,” he said. “You want the wine to reach a warm temperature so the sweetener dissolves but not reach a boil, otherwise you start to cook off the alcohol. Once you have dissolved the sweetener add the rest of the wine.
“The mulling spices are the final touch to the process and they come in various styles,” Chinn explained. “You can make your own or buy prepackaged, but there are a few key ingredients that mulled wine is known to possess.”
Traditional mulled wine blends tend to include cloves, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and orange rind. But Chinn notes that some fun alternatives or additions could be vanilla pods, lemon rinds, cardamom pods, lavender, or even sliced apples or pears.
“The purpose of your spice blend is to add a touch of aromatics to elevate your warm wintertime treat to perfection so part of the fun is finding your balanced blend,” he noted.
After assembling the ingredients, let the wine simmer and mull for 20 minutes and keep it warm while serving your guests. You can serve it strained or unstrained and garnish with cinnamon sticks and more fruit if you prefer.
“Some people like a little extra kick in their mulled wine and will add brandy, whiskey or rum to the drink,” added Chinn.
Based on all that’s happened in 2020, who can blame them? So drink up and here’s to good health and good cheer in 2021!
- Light stovetop burner
- Add one bottle of wine to a pot over high flame
- Add 2 cups of sugar to dissolve
- Once sugar is completely dissolved, add 3 more bottles of wine
- Add 4 tablespoons of mulling spices
- Simmer on low for 20 minutes
- Strain and pour into coffee urn