AT THE END OF A DAY on the pistes in Val d’Isère, France, it is heavenly to take off cold, wet gloves and wrap hands around a glass of vin chaud (“hot wine”). It’s just not après-ski without it! Over the border in Austria and Germany, the beverage is called glüwein. And during the winter holidays in the UK, it’s traditional to have mulled wine simmering on the stove, the spicy fumes permeating the house as the drink warms to welcome guests.
The beverage goes by many names and the variations are endless, but it’s all the same thing—hot, red wine with fruit and spices. It started with the Romans, who spread viticulture throughout the Empire. In the Middle Ages, the beverage was thought to ward off sickness. A recipe from a circa 1390 cookbook, The Forme of Cury, went all-out, recommending the addition of nine spices, including ginger, galangal and grains of paradise.
The tradition held on in Scandinavia where it is called glögg. Then, in the late 19th century, mulled wine became associated with the Christmas holidays. Lately, it’s been growing in popularity here in the United States, especially at our region’s wineries, which like to serve it all winter long.
The recipe is simple and it’s hard to get wrong. The idea is to have some fun and experiment. Gently heat red wine in, preferably, a non-metallic pot; don’t boil it unless you want to lose the alcohol. Add spices like cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, clove and star anise, but go easy, especially with cinnamon, which has a tendency to take over. Putting spices in a little cheesecloth bag will keep the wine clear, but the solids will settle out anyway. Then, float citrus slices like orange and lemon. Studding the fruit with cloves is a nice touch. Sugar is added to taste; this can be a very sweet, dessert-like drink, though I make mine somewhat dry.
The glögg variation involves a cool thing with setting fire to brandy-soaked sugar cubes. It can be cut with water or fruit juice—orange is the most traditional—or amped up with a shot of port. White wine can also be used, as can grape juice for a children’s version. It’s basically a hot Christmas sangria. The classic French version is a little more restrained and elegant, with only a touch of spice and honey, fresh-squeezed orange juice and slices, and a splash of cognac.
It’s best to avoid strongly barrel-aged reds for mulled wine. Use a medium-to full-bodied red made in stainless steel or light oak from grapes with fruit-forward tendencies like syrah and merlot. Gamay, the grape of beaujolais nouveau, works too, as do malbec, grenache, tempranillo and zinfandel. Note: California cabs have way too much oak.
I never say this, but in this case I recommend a box wine. Mulled wine is a festive drink usually made in quantity. It would be a crime to cook an expensive red. Bridge Lane, the second label of Lieb Cellars in Mattituck, does a great line of box wines. The Bridge Lane Red Blend ($38 for 3 liters or four bottles) hits that sweet spot of fruity yet dry, with just a hint of oak. It’s a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and malbec. They sell it in kegs too ($240 for 20 liters or 26 bottles) in case the holiday party invitation list is getting out of hand and you’re thinking of making your mulled wine in a lobster pot.