Sweet, Spicy Mulled White Wines to Sip This Fall

Mulled wine is a comforting partner to crisp fall weather. But where the familiar red versions require a snowy backdrop for full effect, using white wine is a more autumnal alternative. The gold, browns and yellows of the ingredients go well with falling leaves or crisp evenings after apple picking. And—dare I say it—make for the perfect vessel for pumpkin spice flavoring.

European red-based glögg, vin chaud and Glüwein are mulled wine staples, but white versions are less common throughout the world. My mother, who lived in Slovakia for a few years, says that the mulled wine at their Christmas Market is white. Apparently the towns along the Mosel River in the heart of Germany’s white wine region do hot whites too—but that’s about it.

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There really aren’t many centuries-old recipes to adhere to, though there’s a constellation of aromatics that go well with warm white wine and the variations are limited only by the imagination. For a more traditional version, pour a few bottles of off-dry, fruity white (like Riesling) into a large, non-metal pot. For each bottle add a half-cup of sugar, orange and lemon slices, cinnamon sticks, about six cloves, a cardamom pod and a few allspice seeds. Simmer gently for an hour. The word “simmer” is important. I have ruined mulled wine more than once by being too aggressive with the heat.

I like my own invention: a light, dry and clear drink that’s basically a warm spritzer. It’s made of vinho verde, a low-alcohol white. A splash of mineral water, a bit of lemon and a star anise finish the recipe. It’s very cleansing. It’s also fun to emulate cocktails by starting with sauvignon blanc, adding a few ribbons of basil, a squeeze of lime and a grind of pink and black peppercorns. A splash of Hendrick’s gin amps this up to a soul-warming, hybrid hot toddy. In these flavor combinations, the nuances and aromas of the basil and lemon are delicate. And like fine tea, you want them to meld and volatize gently—not boil off or they’ll become bitter.

Pinot grigio is a great base for anything in the hot white department. Simmer lemon juice, a cup of water, a half-cup of honey/agave/simple syrup, a cinnamon stick, a few cloves, star anise and cardamom. Thinly slice fall fruits like pear and apple and soak them in the mixture. Add the pinot grigio and heat. If you like, try Calvados (apple brandy), brown sugar or crystallized ginger for special effects. One recipe started with simmering a bay leaf and toasted cardamom pods in brandy and honey. Another called for toasted almonds. A hot white with a sangria-like flavor profile can easily be made with slices of orange and fine cognac. But keep in mind that sweet flavors clash with oak, so leave out the sugar.

In general, use a light hand with the spices—they’re stronger than you think. Exercise restraint with additions like fruit, fruit juices, liqueurs and spirits. Too many ingredients make a confusing mish-mash.

And to really get into the spirit of the season, yes, you can do pumpkin spice. Take any bottle of white, add a heaping spoonful of pumpkin purée, a good shake of pre-ground pumpkin pie spice and real maple syrup. Simmer and don’t worry: most of the solids will sink to the bottom after a while. Garnish with a small, fallen leaf and serve with an autumn-loving yet ironic twist.