Unique, fine wines should be reserved for occasions when they can be enjoyed with deliberate awareness of the unusual pleasure they provide. Save them for a contemplative evening with other wine lovers. If you choose an unsuitable occasion there is the risk that a good wine will be wasted and the occasion itself badly served.
For an evening full of good cheer and bonhomie, however, where the guests know little and care less about a wine’s provenance, mulled wine is the answer. Mulled wine is basically red wine, combined with spices and served hot – ideal for this time of year and a traditional holiday treat in many old world countries.
According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, mulled wine is wine that has been heated with sugar (or honey) and spices such as cinnamon, cardamon, galingale and also sometimes, slices of fruit and even brandy. The honey and spices help to compensate for any shortcomings in wine quality.
In Victorian England, children were served small glasses of wine at the dinner table and mulled wine was a great favourite. Today, what could be more cosy at home, alone or with a group of friends, than a warm glass of wine fortified with spices? Mulled wine is also a great way for the uninitiated to get introduced to wine – it’s cheap and experimental, and makes good use of Indian spices.
Any red wine will do since the fruit and spices you add will alter the taste. Try an inexpensive Indian red. A wine with a reasonable structure and deep fruit flavour will work well.
Heating brings out the tartness and tannins in a wine which may be enjoyable at cellar temperatures, but when the wine is heated the tartness and tannins become much stronger. So a certain amount of sugar or honey is necessary for good, mulled wine.The sugar smooths the rough edges in the wine and brings out the spice and fruit flavours.
Never let the wine boil; if it’s boiled it’s spoiled. The flavour of the wine/spice combination will deteriorate if the mixture reaches boiling point. Microwaving mulled wine by the glass or mug full is a good alternative because it concentrates the flavours and doesn’t allow them to evaporate.
Mulled wines today are as varied as the wine enthusiasts who make them. Some add just a few spices, while others personalize them with a whole range of ingredients in varying proportions including star anise, fresh ginger and plenty of apple and orange slices. Even though these may not be traditional ingredients in a classic mulled wine, a good mix of flavourings isn’t unusual. Some wine enthusiasts like to dilute their mulled wine with herbal or citrus tea. Tea softens the flavour and adds subtle elements that mulled wine doesn’t normally have.
Since it’s easy to make in quantity, relatively inexpensive, and sure to please most guests, mulled wine is associated with good cheer and wassailing. Get your mulled wine ready for the long evenings ahead and see what a wonderful welcome the scent of warm spices and wine makes as your guests walk in the door.
MULLED WINE – 4 to 6 SERVINGS
Ingredients: 1 bottle of red wine such as a Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel or Merlot
1 peeled and sliced orange (add orange peel zest, to taste, into cooking pot)
1 cup of brandy
2/3 cup honey or sugar
3 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp fresh or 2 tsp ground ginger (allspice can be substituted)
Preparation: Combine all ingredients in either a large pot or a slow cooker. Gently warm the ingredients on low to medium heat and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes without boiling. Stir occasionally to make sure that the honey or sugar has completely dissolved. When the wine is steaming and the ingredients have blended well it is ready to serve. Strain and ladle into mugs.