Mulling Over Glühwein
In the Dec. 2012/Jan.2013 Through the Grapevine, TVR’s wine expert offers his own recipe for glowing wine
I have always thought Christmas time one of extremes. The stretching of emotions as families converge, the inevitable cash flow crisis that awaits as the January bills are pushed under the door by bonus-hungry bankers, and finally the seemingly unending roll-out of traditions forgotten in the previous 11 months.
But surely, one tradition relegates all others to the ranks of idle amusement. And that is the heating of red wine to a temperature of boiling tea and infusing it with enough sugar and spices to inflate the Indian GDP. The thin, often sickly sweet concoction on tap at many establishments during the festive season is a sad comedown for a tipple originally designed to show off the wealth and generosity of a medieval household. This is wrong: mulling in the Anglo or Austrian world is not just an excuse to serve laughably cheap wine to unfortunate guests – although it does, of course, have that as a fringe benefit.
But I am a romantic by nature, and as I weep my way through another festive rerun of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life – when Clarence the Angel decides against a "flaming rum punch", and orders "Mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves. Off with you me lad, and be lively!" – I glance over towards the kitchen to consider rendering a wine from the cellar to something more akin to a Christmas pudding with 13 per cent alcohol.
Yes, there is a long and distinguished history to the drink that goes back to the ancient Greeks, where it was called Hippocras, supposedly invented by the Greek scientist and father of medicine, Hippocrates. It was here that wine was considered a healthier drink compared with the unsanitised water, and the practice of spicing and sweetening with honey elevated it to become something of a health tonic for the aristocrats through the colder months.
By the 17th century, the "mulling" of wine was well established in Europe, known as Glögg in the Nordic countries, vin chaud in France, and Glühwein in German and Dutch-speaking countries, the wine "glowing" from hot irons.
And so, as the Christmas markets set up shop in the alleys and squares of Austrian cities and towns; as the huts atop ski fields are steaming the windows with pots of boiling claret; and the frightening end-of-year company parties are serving saturation Glühwein that can make any troll tantalizing enough to take home (while producing hothouse hangovers worthy of Marcus Aurelius), I ask myself why?
As a wine lover and Protector of the Faith, I can recommend only one course of action, that at the very least bestows some scarab of integrity to this hapless drink… And that is to make it yourself. While vintage and regional considerations are perhaps beside the point, some key features maintain the best price/quality ratio.
Recipe for Glühwein
1 litre red wine – a good one but maybe the greatest wine – young, fruity and without oak and tannins. Think Zweigelt as the immediate choice, or for something a little more sophisticated, Saint Laurent for its centred fruit and velvety texture.
1/2 cup of brandy or Grand Marnier
1 cup water
1 large orange, peeled then juiced
1/2 cup vanilla sugar (try honey as well)
5-6 whole cloves
1 nutmeg, about 10 gratings
1 cinnamon stick
1 vanilla bean, halved
2 star anise
Add all ingredients except the wine and spirit over medium heat and bring to a boil, then simmer for about an hour. The liquid will reduce, so after 30 minutes, add a half a cup of wine; the flavours to infuse and create a syrup.
When your syrup is ready turn the heat down to low and pour in the bottle of wine and any spirit. Bring back to a gentle simmer and heat for about five minutes or depending on how much alcohol you want to burn off you can simmer a bit longer. Ladle it into glasses and serve warm. And a Merry Christmas to all!