Mulled Wine

As winter suddenly blankets our West Coast with its pristine snow and icy fingers, it’s the perfect time to delve into the world of mulled wine – and more importantly, to savor this aromatic elixir that promises to stave off the chill.

Known as mulled wine, gluhwein, glogg, bisschopswijn, izvar, vin chaud, and bearing numerous other names, it’s the heartwarming nectar enjoyed in almost every corner of the world where wine flows and the weather sometimes commands a comforting, heated libation.

The origins of mulled wine are shrouded in the mists of time, and it’s challenging to pinpoint the exact moment when an inventive soul first considered infusing wine with spices and honey, gently heating it, tasting the resulting creation, and proclaiming it as something splendid. What we do know is that this tradition emerged after the birth of wine, offering us thousands of years of potential invention. The earliest historical records trace this practice back to the Romans in the 2nd century, who began experimenting with adding spices and warmth to their wine. The Romans, with their propensity for adding all sorts of elements to their wine (even salt water or some pebbles), may not have been motivated solely by culinary adventurousness but rather by a desire to enhance the palatability of wines that often fell short in quality due to the technology of the times. The Romans’ penchant for spicing up their wine accompanied their conquests across Europe, introducing grapevines and their enological customs to new territories.

The story continues with an interesting connection between modern gluhwein, glogg, and their kin (not only warm ones, sangria, for example, also belong to this group) to an ancient drink called hippocras (known as hypocras in French). Hippocras, a wine infused with spices and sugar, enjoyed immense popularity among the European elite during the Middle Ages (spices and sugar were very expensive at that time). The first recorded mention of this libation, known as “piment,” dates back to the 12th century. Starting in the 14th century, it was the drink of choice for nobility, including kings. Hippocras was typically spiced with a blend of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, grains of paradise (seeds from the Aframomum melegueta plant of the ginger family), and long pepper (a relative of black pepper), among other variations. Ground spices were added to the wine, and after infusion, the liquid was meticulously filtered through a device called the manicum hippocreticum, a multi-layered conical cloth bag originally designed by the Greek physician Hippocrates in the 5th century BC for water filtration. The drink took its name from this unique filter. Hippocras was believed to have numerous medicinal and aphrodisiac properties and was typically served as a cold digestif.

By the 19th century, the popularity of hippocras waned. Nevertheless, it never vanished entirely. You can still find it in limited commercial production in France, particularly in Occitanie and the Loire Valley. This rare, medieval delicacy is available for purchase and is often featured at medieval festivals across Europe.

For those intrigued by the idea of experiencing this drink from yesteryears, here’s a recipe for hippocras to provide a glimpse into its composition:

-•1 bottle of red wine (750 ml) – a quality choice like regular Bordeaux (avoid using grand cru, as the spices will overshadow its delicacy; however, steer clear of low-quality wine, as spices cannot salvage its taste)
•1.5 tsp cinnamon powder
•1.5 tsp ginger powder
•1.5 tsp galangal powder (or substitute nutmeg for galangal, doubling the quantity of cinnamon, as in the recipe from “Le grand dictionnaire de cuisine” by Alexandre Dumas)
•100 g sugar

Mix these ingredients together and allow them to meld for a couple of hours at room temperature. Afterward, filter the wine through multiple layers of cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Let your concoction rest in the refrigerator for one to two days.

With our journey through the annals of history complete, it’s now time to delve into the delightful world of mulled wine itself.

In modern English culture, ingredients such as orange, lemon, cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel, star anise, clove, cardamom, and ginger take center stage in the alchemical transformation of wine into mulled magic. A dash of brandy often graces this heady concoction toward the end of its preparation.

Meanwhile, in German-speaking countries and Alsace, gluhwein dances with the harmonious notes of cinnamon, clove, star anise, vanilla, and a citrusy twist. Here, rum reigns supreme as the spirit of choice.

Scandinavians, for their part, create the melodious brew known as glogg by blending cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, clove, and bitter oranges. To this, they add raisins, dried fruits, and an assortment of nuts. Vodka, aquavit, or brandy are the spirits that infuse warmth.

One particularly unique German tradition involves a distinct method of sweetening. A cup, whether specially designed or simply a convenient vessel, houses a metal grate. Atop the grate sits a sugarloaf soaked in rum (which should be no less than 54% abv, for instance, Austrian Stroh). The sugar ignites, caramelizes, and gently drips into the wine, adding an extra layer of complexity. For in-depth insights into the history and detail recipe of this libation, you can refer to my Feuerzangenbowle article.

While there is an extensive array of regional variations, the central idea remains constant: wine, spices, sweetener, and perhaps a touch of spirit.

Notably, the wine used for mulled wine is not restricted to red; it can be white. For example, Germans often employ Riesling. Wine may also be sweet or fortified, using options like Port or Madeira.

As for the sweetener, sugar or honey can be used, and this choice has evolved over time. In medieval times, the wealthy favored sugar while average folks relied on honey. Today, this preference has reversed, with those who prioritize taste or health opting for honey, while others turn to sugar. Personally, I’m drawn to honey for its rich and complex flavors.

When it comes to spices, opt for whole spices rather than ground to avoid a gritty texture on your palate. You can place these spices in a teabag if you wish, though it’s not obligatory. Consider creating your own unique spice blend tailored to your palate; it’s a much more exciting journey than buying a ready-made mix.

While pre-packaged mulled wine is available, there’s an undeniable charm in preparing your own. Ready-made mulled wine, heated in a bottle, certainly has its convenience, but the freshness and the aroma you’ll experience by crafting your own batch are incomparable.

Now, for the preparations: There are two main methods.

The First Way: A Slow and Steady Approach

Pour your wine into a pot. Add the spices, sliced fruits, and sugar or honey. Place the pot over medium heat, ensuring the liquid reaches a temperature between 70-80°C (just before boiling point, signaled by the appearance of the first white bubbles). Avoid boiling and keep the pot covered. Lower the heat to a minimum, maintaining the wine at a toasty warmth (without boiling) for 40-60 minutes, allowing the spices to weave their aromatic tapestry into the wine. Remove the pot from the heat, add some spirit if desired, and indulge in the sensory journey.

The Second Way: A Quick Solution for Impatient Palates

This method takes a swifter route. Begin by adding the spices to a small amount of water (around 100-200 ml) to create a spiced infusion. Bring it to a boil and let it simmer for 5-10 minutes. Incorporate the sugar or honey, add the wine, and bring it to the ideal 70-80°C. Remove it from the heat, add spirit to taste, and you’re ready to enjoy.

For those curious about the proportions, my own recipe offers a starting point, though don’t hesitate to adjust it to suit your preferences:

•A bottle of red wine (or white, although red is my preference)
•One cinnamon stick
•8-10 clove buds
•One slice of orange (for white wine, a sour apple like Granny Smith works well)
•4-5 cardamom seeds
•One star anise
•5 allspice berries
•10 black peppercorns
•Half a teaspoon of ground nutmeg
•One tablespoon of honey (not too sweet, in my view)
•50-100 ml of brandy

Serve your fragrant brew in ceramic or glass cups.

Allow the soothing warmth of your aromatic mulled wine to envelop you, whether the world outside is a winter wonderland or you’re simply craving a taste of its comforting embrace.

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