Even though mulled wine should remind me of being in the church choir as a cherub-faced youngster and singing Christmas carols with frosty breath overlooking a seasonally-decorated nave and a sea of pink-cheeked parishoners, it doesn’t. In spite of this being the way I was introduced to this most famous Yuletide beverage, my abiding memories of it from childhood (before I ever got to drink any, I should mention) are of a warm cinnamon-scented aroma spiked sharply with the acrid tang of disinfectant and the musty odor of old people. And this, perhaps unsurprisingly, had put me off it until comparatively recently.
You see, as part of the church’s annual carol-singing calendar, we choristers had to visit all the hospitals, hospices and senior citizens homes in town, and my sensitive smell-o-memory was scarred for many years by this revolting combination of smells. That was, until I visited a friend in the French city of Lyon around Christmastime a few years back.
As an icy mistral wind blew down the Rhône valley, vin chaud or hot wine was being served out of a deep cauldron to chilled shoppers perusing the seasonal wares of Lyon’s famed Christmas market in Place Carnot. And I found the atmosphere of seasonal bonhomie, red noses, black tobacco, and warm, spicy alcohol irresistible. I’m not sure whether it was the cold, the booze, or the giant cans of duck confit and cassoulet on sale that so moved me, but from that moment on, I have been hooked on mulled wine.
A Brief History of Mulling
In days gone by, wine went bad pretty quickly due to poor bottling techniques, so during the Renaissance period, spices began to be added – as they were to virtually everything else in that time – to both delay spoilage and make spoiled products taste less nasty. And since young wines were commonly bottled during the early fall, mulling (which originally only meant to ruminate or ponder lengthily) was necessary by Yuletide as some were beginning to turn to the dark side, and hence how the consumption of “mulled wine” became a holiday tradition.
The exact combination of spices varies from country to country and person to person, but, on the whole, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and bay are mixed into claret or another Bordeaux to form the basis of flavors. Variations (and there are many) include the addition of mace, juniper, black pepper, dry citrus peel or vanilla, and substitutions include honey or molasses for the sugar, cardamom for the cloves, and brandy, sherry, acquavit, brenivin, fruit wine or vodka for the red wine.
Mulled wine, aka vin chaud, gluhwein, glögg, vin fiert, vin brulé, quentão, is drunk in most European countries in some form or another around Christmas, but it is particularly associated with German and Nordic traditions where so-called “glogg” parties are a holiday season staple. At these shin-digs, the spiced wine is typically drunk with other Yule specialties including gingerbread, blue cheese and, perhaps rather curiously, rice-pudding.
In my house growing up, however, we only ever had mulled wine when we were expecting company because my father, who has something of an intolerant nose for anything strongly perfumed, can’t abide the stuff, and, it being during the early 1980s, it was accompanied by cheese and pineapple cubes on toothpicks, cocktail weenies (chipolatas), factory-made mince pies, and potted shrimp. All of which is perhaps another reason why I didn’t really catch on to the subtle flavors and myriad charms of mulled wine until I’d left home.
But, of course, now that I have, I’m almost obsessed with making it every year, and so impassioned am I about it, that I’ll frequently pour myself a large glass and then go and stand outside in the cold to drink it to try to recreate the Lyonnaise atmosphere of years ago. Of course, it doesn’t work that well, but it beats the shit out of taking my glass and hymn book to a seniors center and evoking older memories…
Happy Boozy Holidays to you all!
Jonny’s Holiday Mulled Wine (serves 6-8)
- 2 bottles of red wine
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon of cloves
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 star anise
- 4 sticks of cinnamon
- 12 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1/3 cup of orange juice
- peel of 1 orange
- peel of 1 lemon
- 1 orange sliced in 1/4 inch rounds
What to do:
- Optional: Tie all spices in a piece of cheesecloth using kitchen twine. You can skip this if you’d prefer to laugh at guests with cloves stuck in their teeth.
- Heat wine in pot gently with spices/sachet and peel until aromas fill the room (at least 15 minutes). Do not boil, only simmer very, very gently.
- Stir in sugar and orange juice. Taste for sweetness and adjust if necessary.
- Place orange rounds in mugs and ladle in wine.
- Stir and serve with a cinnamon stick and enjoy!