Most of my wine-loving colleagues abhor mulled wine. Mention glühwein or vin chaud and they grimace and retch. However, for me, the heady scent of clove, cinnamon and citrus in hot wine spells cheer and warmth – it also means hitting the high notes when carolling. I have literature on my side, too. Boswell, Austen and Dickens all extolled it. Having that said, I do understand many of my friends’ dislike for all things mulled: the ready-made stuff is sickly, what is peddled at Christmas markets is stewed to death and even home-mulled wine can be revolting. Many must be wondering what all the fuss is about. So how to mull properly?
Ideally, mulled wine is uplifting and animating. It should be light, translucent and aromatic. Sugary soupiness is to be avoided at all cost. The choice of wine is thus paramount. You want a lithe, fresh, light-bodied red without any obvious oak flavours. Think very simple Bourgogne Rouge or ‘ordinary’ Claret that has not seen any new oak. A sprightly young Beaujolais or cherryish Valpolicella will also fit the bill. You want fresh, unwaxed lemons and oranges that have been gently scrubbed with the rough side of a scourer and a little soap to get rid of their wax coating. (Rejoice in lovely orange-peel-smell of this task).
For one bottle of wine, you need a medium saucepan, one unwaxed lemon, one scrubbed orange, one or two cinnamon sticks and two cloves. That’s it. Star anise might look pretty but is not necessary. Pour the wine into the saucepan, add cinnamon, cloves and the sliced citrus fruit. Put this on a very low flame to heat through and infuse slowly and gently. Do not let it come to the boil and do not let it stew. Strain into mugs or glasses and serve. Have teaspoons and Demerara sugar ready so everyone can sweeten their mulled wine to taste – but only after tasting it unsweetened first. This is crucial. Usually, only a tiny bit of sweetening is needed: this way you have an elegant, even pure, mulled wine that is the opposite of cloying. Fortification in the form of Port, brandy or rum is not really needed, unless you do want to get hammered. The leftover citrus, once cooled a little, is a treat for the muller. If you like you can also use pre-mixed spices tied into a teabag of sorts – but avoid using mulling syrup as you do not want to unduly adulterate your mulled wine with too much sugar at the outset.
If you somehow do not like the idea of hot red wine, take comfort from the Austrians: In Vienna it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for a white mulled wine. There they use simple, unoaked Welschriesling (not relation of Riesling) or simple Grüner Veltliner. You could grab a value bottle of Grüner but any un-oaked, fresh but preferably non-aromatic white should do. Think a simple Aligoté or an unoaked Chardonnay from the Mâconnais. Proceed as before. Dry cider also works a treat and can be spiked to taste with Calvados – when children are present they can be included by simply mulling a little apple juice with cinnamon which won’t need sweetening at all.
Cooks with a seasonal obsession could do worse than serve mulled wine sorbet – with a sprig of holly if they must. Delia has a very serviceable recipe. One perfect scoop in a martini glass can be a far more edifying dessert than yet another mince pie drenched in double cream. Advanced mullers might want to graduate to the serious and tradition-steeped business of the Feuerzangenbowle. Here a sugarloaf is set above a punchbowl filled with freshly mulled wine: you need a pair of fire-tongs, or Feuerzangen, for that – hence the name.
The sugarloaf is carefully soaked with high-proof rum – otherwise it won’t burn properly – and set alight. The licking blue flames of the burning rum will caramelise and melt the sugar which will drip into the wine below and make for a very potent drink. This might come in handy for self-medication in the face of family-induced, seasonal strife. But we are already straying into ‘hot plonk’ territory again when all we wanted was the invigorating simplicity and high soprano note of pure mulled wine, without any retching at all.