Yes, this pandemic sucks. But winter doesn’t need to…. not when a hot pot of mulled wine and simmering aromatic cheer can transport you to exotic markets and faraway places.
Here in cool climate wine country (Ontario), we are surrounded by an international community of friends, all of whom tout a killer recipe for hot, spiced wine. Whether it’s a Vin Chaud from France, a Vin Brulè from Italy, Glühwein from Germany, Gløgg from Sweden or an old-fashioned Toronto brew of Maple Mulled Wine, each tradition is steeped in fragrantly spiced hot spirits and good cheer.
Our mulled wine, socially distanced street fest will happen on New Year’s Day, but really, this spicy treat adds winter warmth throughout the holiday season. Indeed, mulled wine might just be the shot in the arm we all need to get us through the winter pandemic months, while we wait for the COVID shot in the arm in 2021.
So… for this blog post, we’re travelling to northern Italy, Sweden, Germany, France and of course Canada for a local version of hot spiced wine.
Mulled Wine 101
Mulled wine is made by heating either red wine – the traditional version – or white wine – the off-road version, and then adding a treasure trove of baking-spice aromas and flavours. You’ll need a big stainless pot, crockpot or dutch oven for your magical brew.
Mulling spices like cinnamon sticks, cloves, allspice berries, nutmeg, ginger and cardamom pods are considered de rigeur for most hot wine recipes (keep reading for exceptions to this rule). You can also heat things up by adding peppercorns and/or dried ancho chilis ((1.000 – 2.000 Scovilles) for a more robust aromatic and taste experience.
An important tip: only use whole spices in your mulled wine. Ground spices will make the wine gritty and no-one likes particulate matter in their wine.
Sugar, honey or maple syrup (very Canadian) can be added to taste. The amount really depends on your sweet tooth and the amount of residual sugar or sweetness in the base wine (Amarone, for example, is a high RS red wine).
The real eye candy in mulled wine are the decorative touches. Navel orange, tangerine or mandarin slices, lemon twists, apple swirls and star anise add some fruity bling. Oranges also add a hint of sweet citrus and acidity so add incrementally and taste as you go (note – scrub citrus fruit to remove wax coating and avoid white fruit pith which adds a bitterness to the wine).
OF COURSE, the star of the show is always the wine (this is a wine blog), but with mulled wine it doesn’t have to be the expensive stuff. While almost all hot wine recipes suggest going with a cheaper wine, I’d argue if you’re making Vin Brulé Italian mulled wine – or Canadian mulled wine or Swedish mulled wine, doesn’t it make sense to choose a regional wine????
My online ‘lit review’ of mulled wine recipes suggests the wine should be medium bodied, low tannin, unoaked and seriously fruity so here in Ontario, a local Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cab Franc or Gamay would work nicely. Bigger, bolder, full-bodied reds such as a Bordeaux blend, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec are also options but know these wines (often) pack a bigger alcoholic and tannic punch.
The wine is heated slowly and then kept at a constant temperature. It doesn’t matter which European recipe you follow, there is one overarching rule with mulled wine: never boil the wine. Too high a heat can make the wine taste bitter and – horrors – you risk burning off the alcohol (science trivia: alcoholevaporates at a much faster rate than water due to its lower boiling temperature – 82 compared to 100 degrees C).
The alcohol will evaporate as it heats up, so you’re gonna lose some of the alcoholic punch. But fear not – you still get a warm, comforting, fragrant winter treat that’s brimming with spice. When you’re ready to serve, have a small strainer on hand for those who prefer their mulled wine mull-free (strained) and make sure every cup has a beautiful, festive orange slice, star anise and cinnamon stick garnish.
For young imbibers or those preferring a non-alcoholic version, grape juice, pomegranate juice, apple juice and/or cranberry juice can be used as a base with spices added accordingly.
Serve hot or warm, socially distanced, and enjoy the good vibes and good cheer! What pandemic you might ask?
Gløgg is a Swedish variation on mulled wine for ‘only the hardiest of souls’. The hot wine is topped-up with plenty of booze for added potency and added cheer. The traditional Gløgg recipe includes raisins and almonds and is served with a small spoon. Swedes argue their mulled wine is the best of the best because it’s a drink and snack in one!
A favourite holiday gift this year comes from my husband’s boss, Michael, whose wife is Finnish born, Swedish raised: “Over the holidays, the gløg is usually on the stove at room temperature for a couple days – and it gets better as we go. We prefer to let it sit overnight for sure, to get the full spice effect. But we often cheat and whip up in one afternoon.”
Although Swedes are known for their vodkas (home of Absolut), climate change has meant intrepid winemakers in the south of Sweden – Skåne and Malmö region – can now make commercial wines. As of 2020, some 30+ wineries are making wine with vitis vinifera grape Pinot Noir, and hybrids like Rondo, Regent, Léon Millot and Solaris.
In the meantime, while Swedes scale up wine production and build an export industry, most Gløgg recipes call for a fruity French Pinot Noir as the base wine.
Of course, if you’re drinking Gløgg, toasting your guests and friends with the Viking war chant “Skål” is considered mandatory!
1 bottle fruity red wine – like Pinot Noir
1 bottle port
½ bottle brandy, rum or vodka
Cheesecloth bag of spices: cloves, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, all spice berries
1 cup each of raisins and blanched almonds.
In large pot or dutch oven, along with 2 cups of water, bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Cool, cover and refrigerate overnight. Strain the mixture, then reheat. Do not boil. Add sugar to taste. Add raisins and blanched almonds.
Recipe adapted from designholmen.com
Glühwein translates to ‘glow wine’ (for obvious reasons) and it’s the German version of mulled wine. Glühwein (pronounced glue-wine) is sold in the spectacular Christmas markets across Germany and its spicy and sweet smell is associated with the holiday and winter season.
My Toronto friend Jürgen says Glühwein is his favourite thing if he’s entertaining or better still, visiting Germany. “Christmas in Germany would not be the same without Glühwein and Kartoffelpuffer with Apfelmus (potato pancakes with applesauce) – ideally from one of the vendors in the Heidelberg Christmas market with snow falling, overlooked by the beautifully lit castle on the hill.”
The most important thing about Glühwein, he says, is to never, ever let the wine come to a boil. “It’s a terrible waste of alcohol.”
German mulled wine welcomes a broader array of sweet and savoury spices into the pot. Some classic recipes call for vanilla (pod), nutmeg, ginger, fennel, juniper berries, chili peppers, coriander and bay leaves with whole oranges, sliced orange, orange peel and cloved oranges adding a serious dose of sweet citrus. Some Germans opt for a hardier version of Glühwein called Feuerzangenbowle. This method involves soaking a sugarloaf in rum, setting it on fire and allowing the brulé to slowly drip into the Glühwein. Yum, eh? Proceed with caution……
For a red – or white – base wine, same rules apply: the fruitier the wine, the better. If it’s a white Glühwein, go for a dry Riesling. If it’s red and you can find a Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) or Dornfelder – the two most widely grown and exported red grapes – it’ll make for a more authentic Glühwein experience (when in Rome, right?). Failing that, go with Merlot.
2 cups water
1 cup orange juice
1 ½ cups sugar
Cheesecloth mix of 10 cloves, 8 juniper berries, 8 allspice berries, 2 cinnamon sticks, 2 bay leaves, 1 star anise
2 oranges – cut in half
1 lemon – cut in half
1 1/2 bottles German fruity red wine – Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Dornfelder, Regent and Merlot
Garnish – sliced orange, cinnamon sticks, lemon twists
Combine water, orange juice, sugar, cinnamon sticks, allspice and star anise in a pot over high heat. Boil and then reduce to a mild simmer.
Add juice of oranges into the liquid. Pierce the orange rinds with cloves and add to the pot. Add juniper berries. Juice the lemon into the simmering liquid, and place the halves in the pot.
Reduce the mixture to half its original volume, add the German wine and heat until just below simmering. Serve in mugs and garnish with orange twist and cinnamon stick.
Note: The non-alcoholic version of Glühwein is called Kinderpunsch, and it’s a mix of hibiscus tea and fruit juices, sweetened with honey.
Recipe adapted from Tobias Rimkus.
Italian Vin Brulé
Vin brulé is the Italian version of hot, spiced wine and as a tradition, it’s right up there with pizza, panettone (classic Italian sweet bread), and torrone (classic Italian nougat). Vin brulé or “burnt wine”, is a tradition in the more northerly Alpine regions of Italy during the cold winter months. The wine is burnt at the end of the mulling process by using a long match and setting the wine ablaze. Locals say it’s done to enhance the spicy flavours and burn off the alcohol (gasp)!!
Italians have been drinking mulled wine since the Middle Ages. Historians believe it originated as a way to salvage spoiled wine. Italian legend has it, that spiced and steaming hot wine is a cure-all, and you’ll find Vin Brulé used medicinally to help mitigate flu and common cold symptoms – cough, cough…. (confession: my parents fed me honey and whisky as a kid when I was sick).
According to my Milanese neighbour Martin, most northern Italian versions of hot wine use “soft- bodied”, fruity wines with rich aromas. Local regional wines as a base might include – Dolcetto d’Alba or Barbera in Piemonte, Valpolicella in the Veneto and indigenous grape Schiava in Alto Adige. He says Italians never mix hard liquor with the wine, the way they do in some parts of northern Europe.
My take on Vin Brulé is it differs from other mulled wine recipes in three ways: more sugar, less alcohol and citrus fruit skins, only.
Vin Brulé Recipe
1 cup of sugar/200 grams
2 freshly grated nutmeg
2 cinnamon sticks and few star anise
1 orange and 1 lemon – untreated (organic) and using peel only and avoiding bitter white pith
1 bottle local red wine
Mix spices, sugar and wine. Add skins of fruit and snack on the actual fruit while the mulled wine simmers – 2 hours. When all sugar is dissolved, it’s show time. Using a long fireplace match, carefully set the mulled wine on fire and let it burn until the alcohol is ‘burnt’ off.
Recipe adapted from Giallo Zafferano.
French Vin Chaud
David Lebovitz is an American chef, author and blogger living in Paris. May I direct you to his 2012 blog post on Vin Chaud (hot mulled wine) for some ‘hot wine’ regional perspectives. A number of the 77 commenters say it’s ironic that the world’s bastion of fine wine – France – even allows this tradition of stewing its wine. Yet, as David and many of his readers acknowledge, in the dead of a Paris winter, there is something truly magical about slipping into a cave or bar and enjoying hot wine infused with heavenly spices.
When it comes to Vin Chaud, David Lebovitz is a proponent of three things: first, use vin de table or (cheap) table wine. “Once you heat the wine with spices, all nuances in a fine wine get steamed away.” Second, if you’re making French Vin Chaud, he suggests you go easy on the cinnamon. Apparently, the French don’t love it as much as North Americans do. Finally, fortify: add a fruit – pear or ginger eau-de-vie, or a hit of brandy, cognac or port…. to spice things up!
Vin Chaud Recipe
1 bottle (75cl) fruity red wine
1 whole star anise
2 slices fresh ginger (no need to peel)
3 green cardamom pods, gently crushed
3 whole cloves
Generous pinch of freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup (60ml) mild-flavored honey
Optional: 1/4 cup (60ml) Pear Williams, or another eau-de-vie, or Cognac, brandy or port
1. Pour the wine into a nonreactive saucepan. Add the spices and honey, and bring to simmer. Turn off heat, and let stand 15 minutes.
2. Reheat the wine until it’s warm and steamy, turn off the heat, and add the eau-de-vie or brandy, if using. Pour the wine into heat-resistant glasses to serve.
Adapted from David Lebovitz – Author of Drinking French
Canadian Maple Mulled Wine
If I’ve learned anything writing this post, it’s that most Canadian mulled wine lovers appropriate mulled wine recipes from their ancestral homes – hence the Swedish, German, Italian and French recipes included here. In northern countries, mulled wine is as important to regional identities as the sports they play and the flags they fly.
Canada is now 151 years young, which means – since confederation – we’ve weathered 151 of some of the most challenging winters on the planet. It’s what gives us our character, our fortitude, our conversation starters and our seasonal cuisine. We don’t seem to have a distinctly Canadian take on mulled wine, but we do have an abiding love for all things maple.
So I’ve created my own, maple infused mulled wine recipe. It begins with a local wine (2019 Creekside Syrah), is sweetened with local maple syrup and is turbo-charged with local maple liqueur. The aromas and flavours come from the heavenly mulled spices and fruit found in hot wine recipes around the world, but what makes this mulled wine special chez nous is it’s served in Canada. We may be a cold country, but our hearts are warm.
Cheers, Prost, Skål, Salud, Santé! May 2021 bring better health for all, and a hot cup of good cheer!
Maple Mulled Wine Recipe
½ cup local maple syrup (or more….essentially to taste)
2 tall cinnamon sticks
8 allspice berries
3 star anise
4 cardamom pods gently crushed
Several slices ginger, apple, navel oranges
2 bottles of local medium-bodied Canadian wine – Pinot Noir, Cab Franc, Gamay, Merlot, Syrah (neutral oak treatment and low tannin)
Dash or 2….maybe 3 of Canadian whiskey and maple liqueur
Combine ingredients and simmer on low heat for 2 hours. It can be continually re-heated as required. Pour hot, spicy goodness into mason jars (winter gloves/mitts advised) or mug. Garnish with star anise, twist of orange and cinnamon stick
You’ll notice there is no English mulled wine recipe and that’s largely because all the brits I spoke to said if they want mulled wine, they (cheat, and) buy a pre-made bottle from Sainsbury, heat in microwave and serve with mince pies. From a heartland of mulled wine and wassailing – tradition evolved!!