How to make Mulled Wine!
Updated: Mar 29
Mulled Wine is a regularly made drink in Northern Europe & can be found in many German Christmas markets specifically under the name 'Glühwein'. Adding spices to Wine is for sure not a trend & human beings have been doing this for more than a thousand years. I would argue that Mulled wine is the original 'HOT PUNCH' as it ticks all the boxes of what a Punch is in the cocktail category. So lets dive into the specifics shall we?
Roman Spiced Wine - Conditum Paradoxum The scene above is probably frighteningly familiar to anybody who has had their Christmas work-do recently, and would probably be frighteningly familiar to many ancient Romans at this time of year. We're currently in the midst of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a time of gift-giving and continual partying and drinking which ran from 17th - 23rd December in honour of Saturn, the god of time.
Whilst the above fresco does not depict Saturnalia, I've included it here for two reasons - in it we see Bacchus, the god of wine, and we also see a satyr drinking his fill from a bowl. The Romans clearly loved the stuff, so I think it is high time we had a go at Roman wine for ourselves. And what better recipe to start with than conditum paradoxum, an ancient spiced wine not dissimilar to mulled wine.
Conditum Paradoxum (Roman Spiced Wine)
750 ml of white wine
1/2 cup Honey
1 tsp Fennel
1 Tsp Peppercorns (crushed)
6 Dates or a small handful of raisins
Add the honey , wine, and dates/raisins to a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the spices, turn off the heat and cover. Let sit for 15–20 minutes, strain and serve.
Mulled wine originated in the 2nd century. It was created by the Romans who would heat wine to defend their bodies against the cold winter. As the Romans conquered much of Europe throughout the next century, their love for mulled wine spread across their empire and the regions they traded with.
As its popularity continued to grow throughout the middle ages, Europeans would mix heated wine with spices because they believed it would promote health and avoid sickness. They would also use herbs and flowers as natural sweeteners to make unpalatable wines taste a lot nicer. We can trace different names all of which can be classified as Mulled-Wine throughout Europe: Known as Bisschopswijn in the Netherlands this amazing drink is named to literally mean the bishop’s win and it is most enjoyed during the Sinterklaas holiday, while its ingredients replace lemons with oranges.
Vin chaud in France is what the “hot wine” is known as and in most cases, it consists of a cheap red wine that is enhanced via cinnamon, lemon and sugar, although the wine must never be too sweet.
Greyano is the heated wine consisting of red wine infused by peppercorn and honey most loved in Bulgaria. The Greyano also includes at times citrus fruits, apples as well as oranges or lemons.
Heated or mulled wine is called svařené víno, which means boiled wine in the Czech Republic. Boiled wine is also popular in Hungary where it is called forralt bor, Hungarians makes boiled wine from a cheap version of Egri Bikaver and then spice it up with cloves and cinnamon.
Brule is what is enjoyed in Italy, the name means burnt wine, while in Latvia the heated or hot wine is called Karstvins and it is prepared by using Riga Black Balsam and current or grape juice.
Over time, the craze for mulled wine faded across most of Europe except for Sweden, where its popularity only increased. Claret (Rhen wine, sugar, honey and spices) and Lutendrank (various spices, wine and milk) were just two of the variations that the Swedish monarchy made famous over the coming centuries.
As more alternatives developed over time, recipe books started using the collective name glögg, first mentioned in 1609. The next big adaptation took place in the 1800s when cognacs-glögg started to become popular, too.
The big turning point came in the 1890s, when glögg became associated with Christmas. Every wine merchant across the country had their own unique recipe to share. Over time, these unique bottles (most depicting Santa Claus) were distributed throughout the rest of Europe – uprooting the long forgotten mulled wine in a new festive light.
Over the next several decades, mulled wine had become a global phenomenon, with countries all over the world creating their own unique blends. Variations now include everything from red and white wines to sangria blends and vermouth to port – each country's method slightly different from the next.
To this day, mulled wine continues to be a Christmas & Winter tradition alongside its sister drink, mulled cider. Here's a basic guide we found online for you to use at home to making this stuff at home:
Step 1– Picking your wine
Even though wine is nothing more than an acidic, aqueous solution of ethanol with various low-level impurities, it must form the backbone of our drink. Luckily for us the low-level impurities include the nearly 1,000 different compounds that make wine so great. These compounds arise from grapes, yeast, bacteria, oak barrels – even the weather and soil have an effect.
Every wine contains a different set of chemicals. These range from astringent tannins that bite the back of our throats and colourful anthocyanins, to fruity esters, woody aldehydes, floral terpenes, sugars and alcohols. These are like the face of a wine; constantly changing with time, temperature, oxygen and sunlight. It is a face sculpted by the winemaker, the result of a series of careful decisions and calculations. Modern wine is not a natural product even if it is the product of a natural process, namely fermentation. So we must look to the result of all this work for the flavours of Christmas in wine.
My favourite Christmas smell memory is that of the tangerine found every year at the bottom of my stocking, an aroma due primarily to limonene, a member of the terpene group of organic compounds whose name derives from “turpentine” – yes, the paint stripper. Fortunately, limonene has a much more pleasant flavour and is often present in wines made from Chardonnay and Muscat grapes.
From my childhood the aroma that marked the start of Christmas was the smell of the tree when it went up. This smell is mostly due to another terpene known as pinene. However, pinene is not present in most modern wines except Greek retsina, where it forms a ghostly memory of the resin used as a wine preservative and to seal ancient earthenware containers. Luckily for us alpha-terpineol is present in pine and most wines, particularly those from Muscat and Riesling grapes. It has a lovely pine-like smell with hints of citrus.
Another classic Christmas smell is the rich combination of cinnamon and cloves. One of the key smell compounds for both of these spices is eugenol. Unlike limonene and pinene this generally comes not from the wine itself but from the oak barrels the wine is aged in. Oak is used in wine making to fine-tune the colour, flavour, tannin profile and texture of both red and white wine.
The overindulgence of Christmas is often typified by the presence of lots of butter in food. Diacetyl has a buttery odour and is present in cultured butter. This smell is often present in wines that have undergone secondary malolactic bacterial fermentation. This reduces acidity and tartness making the wines softer. Many red and white wines now undergo this process.
In creating your own smell image of Christmas you should pick the wine that most closely echoes your favourite Christmas aromas. I was surprised when the above considerations pushed me to choose a white wine over my normally preferred red, and even more surprised when I found I loved it! If you can’t make up your mind which wine to use, Smoking Bishop (Dickens’s favourite, remember) was made with Port wine, which was relatively cheap at the time. Otherwise, to paraphrase something Sigmund Freud most likely never said, “Sometimes, a wine is just a wine.”
Step 2 - Choosing you additives
The Christmas chemicals listed above give you a palette to work from when selecting the ingredients to add to your chosen wine. The idea of matching flavour compounds – food pairing – has been used in molecular gastronomy for a decade or more. The idea is that if key aroma compounds are shared between two ingredients then they might complement each other. For example, the Firmenich scientist François Benzi found that the aromatic compound indole was present in both jasmine and pork liver and so matched these ingredients to create a new and interesting dish. (Delicious, you might think … though indole in high concentrations has a faecal, rather than a foodie odour.) Much of western cooking has for centuries unknowingly combined ingredients that share flavour compounds (for example, eggs and butter), unlike East Asian cuisine which combines ingredients that lack shared compounds (for example, garlic and soy sauce).
So to match our Christmas chemicals we could add cinnamon and cloves to give us eugenol and alpha-terpineol (pine trees not being an ideal ingredient in beverages). We could get limonene from lemons, oranges, nutmeg or ginger. We could add raspberry, strawberry or lavender for their diacetyl. However, there is one food that reportedly contains all of these compounds: blackcurrant. So I am going to add blackcurrant to my wine to help create my Christmas smell image in a glass. I am also keeping cinnamon and cloves in the mix for a bit of tradition and visual effect.
1 bottle of white chardonnay wine (oaked if possible) or another wine of your choice 10-15cm cinnamon stick 5-10 cloves 50-100ml crème de cassis Honey to taste.
Step 3 - Add spices & let rest for 30 mins
Heating spices and wine together is a balance of two processes: diffusion and evaporation. When the spices hit the wine the various flavour compounds will start to leech into the liquid. Some will be more soluble in alcohol, some in water, and others will have very low solubility in either and may float to the surface. The longer you leave the spices in the pan, the greater the diffusion of flavours. However, there will also be a greater loss of flavours and alcohol through evaporation; hence we keep the lid on and try not to let it boil.
Breaking up spices into smaller pieces or grinding them will speed up the diffusion of their chemicals into the solution but they may also lead to a gritty wine – I prefer to leave them whole.
Step 4 - Add all other ingredients & taste
We have carefully picked the most evocative ingredients, now we need to balance the flavours. If we had the correct equipment and a lot of time, we could find an objective chemical composition for the perfect mulled wine. But even then, it would be a subjective decision. A qualified wine taster may be able to accurately perceive many of the more objective physicochemical properties of a wine, such as acidity. They might even define a “great” wine based on some of these properties. However, for me wine tasting is a subjective activity and so I am going to rely on personal preference to round out my mulled wine’s smell image.
I add honey and blackcurrant, tasting the mixture regularly in search of a good balance. I use crème de cassis to provide blackcurrant flavours and to help reverse any reduction in the alcohol concentration of the mulled wine during heating.
For sweetness I love the taste of the traditional wine sweetener, honey, though sugar works just as well. The ancient Greeks and Romans used honey and seem to have preferred their wine much sweeter than might be deemed fashionable today.
Step 5 - Pour & Drink
The physicist Richard Feynman once wrote, “If we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe.” As you pour your wine you can imagine the many hundreds of chemical compounds flowing into the glass (or mug if you prefer): chemicals constructed from the simplest materials of the Earth itself, water, rock, air and light; grapes, nature’s candy, packaged in bright colours and test-marketed over millions of years of natural selection, then transformed by man and microbe into wine. Now we have fine-tuned those ingredients and brought seemingly disparate chemicals together to create a smell image, the festive flavour of Yuletide.
As the warm Christmassy concoction enters your mouth let it wash around and discover what sensations it triggers. Can you taste the tangerines despite there being none present? Have you managed to rekindle the emotions of childhood Christmases? If not, don’t despair. As the heat of the mulled wine stimulates blood supply to the mucus membranes in the mouth and throat, the alcohol will be absorbed more quickly into the bloodstream and you’ll soon forget to care. Because as Feynman also wisely said, “… not forgetting ultimately what wine is for, let it give us one more final pleasure; drink it and forget it all!”