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Holidays Know How

Mulling Over Spiced Wine

Spiced wine is an ancient drink that’s easy to make

Felicity Carter By December 24, 2021
painting of woman drinking mulled wine and holding oranges
Photo illustration by Pix

The guy who worked in the next office lurched down the narrow hallway, gray-faced and listing like a passenger on a storm-tossed ship.

He’d just survived the annual Glühwein tasting.

For more than a decade, I worked for a German publishing house specializing in wine, spirits, and beer. If there was an alcoholic beverage served anywhere in the German-speaking world, it had probably been tasted and rated by one of our publications. 

That meant that every year, some of Europe’s most expert wine tasters convened in the downstairs tasting room to work their way through the many Glühweins (pronounced glue-vine) sold in German supermarkets. Otherwise known as mulled wines, these are, for the most part, cheap red wines infused with spices, and then over-sweetened. Lined up in rows, the wines were served stone cold, making the Glühwein morning a slog through syrup.

It wasn’t just that the drinks were cold that dismayed the tasters. It’s also that the more serious wine tasters loathed mulled wine anyway, even if served at the right temperature.

Me, on the other hand?

I love it.

What is mulled wine?

While spiced wine may date back to the ancient Greeks; the first written record is found in Plautus’s play “Curculio,” a Roman comedy from the second century B.C. Recipes also pop up throughout the Middle Ages, including in the 14th century English cookbook “The Forme of Cury.”

According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “honey and spices helped to compensate for any shortcomings in wine,” of which there were probably plenty, in an age when fundamental concepts like fermentation were not understood.

Spiced wine, in other words, is as deeply authentic and historic as any other type of wine, and maybe even more so.

It became known as “mulled” wine, meaning heated, some time in the 17th century. Today, it’s typically served at Christmastime. In the U.K., it retains strong nostalgic associations with the Victorian-era Christmas; the air of London’s Covent Garden market becomes perfumed with spice during the holiday period, thanks to all the stall holders selling it. In the U.S., both white and red mulled wine is often served at holiday parties. The Swedes serve a more extravagant version known as glögg, which can contain almonds, raisins, and a spirit, and there are other national variations as well.

Yet it’s arguably Germany where the tradition remains the strongest, because Glühwein — or “glow wine,” named for the red hot irons that once heated the wine — is the lynchpin of the Christmas markets that spring up in every town. Glühwein stalls are typically wooden huts lined with steaming urns that dispense everything from hot, spiced apple punch to tea spiked with rum, and Eierlikör, or eggnog. But it’s the spiced red wine that’s the main event.

The mulling of wine

Glühwein is the same drink as mulled wine, more or less, meaning it’s a heated red wine to which spices and sugar or honey are added. The biggest difference is that it’s typically made using a German variety called Dornfelder. Created in Germany in the 1950s by plant breeding, Dornfelder was named for a 19th century civil servant — which tells you everything you need to know about its character. It’s simple, fruity stuff.

Yet the government takes Glühwein seriously, and has devised “purity laws” that govern its making; it can’t be adulterated with water, and should be flavored with cinnamon and cloves, regardless of which other spices are added.

What the legislation doesn’t cover, but everybody understands, is that Glühwein must be served in the ugliest mug it’s possible to find. Mugs with snowflakes printed on them are acceptable; badly rendered snowmen are better.

Once you’ve got your steaming mug, you wrap your hands around it, prop yourself against one of the market tables, and start talking. It’s freezing cold, conversational nonsense will flow, and soon everybody will be swearing lifelong fealty to one another. Which, of course, they will bitterly regret the next morning.

It’s warming, fun, and deeply communal. What’s not to love?

mulled wine ingredients sketch

Make your own

There aren’t many Christmas markets open in Europe this year, for obvious reasons, but that doesn’t mean the end of mulled wine, because it’s easy to make — and a winter tradition worth indulging.

Cheap, commercial mulled wine served cold in a tasting room is revolting. But a homemade version is a convivial, warming drink that’s perfect for cold weather. 

There are just three rules to keep in mind:

  1. The wine needs to be simple, fruity, and preferably unoaked; Grenache works. Stay away from cheaper, big brand red wines, however, because they typically have very high levels of residual sugar that will turn the mulled wine sickly sweet.
  2. The sweetness level is crucial. Too sweet and mulled wine becomes undrinkable. Add sugar or honey to the pot gradually, and keep tasting through the process.
  3. Cinnamon and cloves are important, but don’t be heavy-handed. Too much cinnamon imparts a woody flavor.

Raid your cupboard mulled wine

I’ve called this recipe “Raid Your Cupboard” because whether you use all the spices on the list or not doesn’t really matter, as long as you get the main ones in. Other than that, just use whatever you’ve got on hand.

Essential ingredients:

  • A bottle of simple, fruity red wine
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 or 5 cloves 
  • 2 or 3 star Anise
  • Lemon zest
  • Sugar or honey to taste

Nice-to-have ingredients:

  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 1 nutmeg
  • 5 or 6 peppercorns
  • Slivers of fresh ginger

Some traditionalists put all the spices into a zip-close bag and crush them to release the maximum aromas and flavors. Some of the spice is then wrapped in muslin and dropped into the wine like a teabag, while the unused portion is stored away in the freezer.

I don’t recommend this. Let’s be honest here — you’ll never retrieve that bag from the freezer. It will stay there until you move out or die. Just throw whatever spices you’ve got into the wine and strain them out later.

Next steps:

  1. Pour red wine into the pan.
  2. Add spices and zest.
  3. Apply gentle heat, but do not bring to boil.
  4. Stir and gradually add the sugar or honey.
  5. When you’re happy with the taste, turn the heat off and strain out the spices.

And that’s it! Some people add freshly squeezed orange juice to add zing. Others add a splash of brandy. Whatever you’ve got to hand, throw it in. You really can’t go wrong.

Then pour it into your ugliest cups, and pass it around.

Happy holidays!

mulled wine ingredients sketch