With the year-end holidays comes a festive atmosphere and, for this transplanted Northerner now living in Florida, I admit there is also a certain longing for cold weather.
To be precise, there is the longing for the idea of cold weather rather than an actual wish to be shivering in the snow. It’s a nostalgia that Irving Berlin wonderfully captured in his classic song White Christmas – I dream of it, and am perfectly content to have that dream while lolling about with a rum and tonic under a palm tree. That said, the holidays awaken a lot of memories and I indulge them with friends and some holiday drinks that are perhaps a better fit with my dream than my usual warm weather cocktails.
As the holidays approach, I start to pour through my wine shelves looking for any bottles that got away from me during the year. Some are bottles that will soon pass their prime, some are gifts from friends who know I like dessert wine but who forgot I don’t like off-dry reds, and some are in that odd category of “what the heck was I thinking when I bought that.” These bottles are all excellent candidates for that catch-all holiday quaff, Mulled Wine.
Mulled wine goes back a long way – Victorian England had a passion for it, and the Scots and Scandinavians got onto it long before, and earlier still the ancient Romans were known to doctor their wine. These folks all had something in common – bad wine. Living in a difficult climate for much of the year, or, in the case of the Romans lacking the technology to ferment properly, they had to find a way to preserve their wine, and since that wine was often thin and acidic, they needed to mask its true nature. The easiest way to mask off flavors or harsh acidity in wine is by adding sugar – this is one reason so many cheap sparkling wines are so sweet – that sugar keeps you from knowing just how lame the wine actually is.
Each culture adds its unique spin to creating this wine but the basics are simple: heat it up, sweeten it and add spices or fruit or both. I looked up some Victorian era recipes and nearly went into diabetic shock on finding they added a cup (220 ml) of water and upwards of another cup (200 grams) of sugar to their wine – it was either really dreadful stuff or they had to stretch it out for a large party. To this concoction they’d add raisins and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and allspice. If they were flush, they’d throw in a bottle of port as well.
Today we can make a much better version, and it’s still a great way to use up wine we don’t really want to feature at our table. My friends who ski call it by its German name glühwein, and while it sounds like glue wine, it shouldn’t be sticky-sweet. (Trivia tidbit: glühwein means “glow wine,” and gets its name from the irons heated to glowing in a fire before plunging into the wine to heat it up. Unless you are out camping, use the stove – it’s much more efficient).
For my holiday celebrations I’m using a decent but inexpensive red – here’s where you can use all that Yellowtail your soon-to-be-former friends keep bringing to dinner, or the bottles of Two-Buck Chuck someone found at Trader Joe’s. These are both great candidates for “improvement.”
Put two (or more) bottles in a pot and warm over medium heat (get it warm but don’t boil it). For every two 750 ml bottles of wine add ¼ cup (about 60 grams) of raw sugar (it has a heartier flavor), 15 allspice berries, 10 black peppercorns (trust me, it won’t taste of pepper, this just gives it extra body), 15 whole cloves and 2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half. If you like, add half an orange, peel and all, and if you have it on hand, toss in a piece of ginger root the size of your thumb. Granted, this gives a strong flavored brew to those with large hands, so use your own judgment.
I let it simmer for 15 minutes with a lid on the pot, mainly because I don’t want too much alcohol to evaporate. If you wish, you can tie the spices up in a piece of muslin or cheesecloth. If you let them float randomly in your mulled wine, just use a strainer when pouring the wine into mugs.
Now, here’s where a caveat is useful. You may think two bottles of wine is plenty for a group of six or eight people because that’s what you’d open for dinner. But this isn’t dinner, this is: 1) a holiday and 2) a celebration with people you like and 3) warmed, sweetened wine goes down really easily. You’ll go back to the pot a few times. And in the highly unlikely event you have wine left over, it reheats fine the next day and is great with a holiday movie and cookies. Or for breakfast.
Along with the spiced wine, all of us at VeritageMiami send you our warmest (even glowing) wishes for a happy and peaceful holiday and we look forward to offering you great wine in 2015. Look forward to seeing you at VeritageMiami, April 15-18, 2015.
P.S. Tickets to VeritageMiami make great holiday gifts. Click here and take care of those last-minute gifts.