When I first got into wine, I smelled terrible. You were never to shower beforehand: apparently your wine might taste too Zestfully clean. And you had to drink it out of special glasses. Reds were served at 56 degrees; whites at 48. You held it by the stem or the base—touching the bowl could destroy the thermodynamics, you know!
Then I saw it. The light peering into my plain white tasting room. I heard it. The music and laughter outside; the silence of no tasting notes. I slowly dug my way out of the dungeon. Outside? Grown Spanish women gravity bonging the local wine. Raw teak tables covered in hot food and pitchers of sangria. Kegged Chablis. And, across the street, through the windows, more laughter, early Christmas trees and clear glass mugs full of steaming wine. Which got me thinking: Mulled wine.
A sort of Nordic thing, I suppose, and to me just about the only thing you need when you have guests over in a Nor'easter-mummified fall. In practice, it's warm, spiced, red. But in spirit, it's booze you serve with a ladle. Which I think is maybe what makes it so wholesome, like grandma's soup, or your crazy divorced uncle's room temp Jell-O (was that just me?).
So why is it always so terrible? Because you can't just mix whatever's in your cabinet with whatever old bottle you got last Christmas and hope it turns out well. Like the classic ladled drinks of 17th century British-colonial India, mulled wine is nothing if not a “punch.” Or, as they called it back then, “panch,” the Hindi word for five—a formula.
Five? Yes, a blend in increasing proportions of fruit, sugar, alcohol, and water, plus spices, which the Bard Brown so eloquently rhymed: one part sour, two parts sweet, three of strong, and four of weak, spice makes five.
Given the Viking via Alsace, maybe Polish, now the Hamptons, and in many ways rooted in India origins of this drink, it seemed natural to put together a variation that brought us all together. That's the point of holiday wine. You don't show off your '82 Ausone to a room mostly full of people who can't control their bladders. You just try to make them happy, whoever the hell they are, wherever they're from.
This recipe is based on one bottle of wine, which will make enough for four-to-six moderately stressed individuals. Scale accordingly.
● Your Choice: You're an idiot if you buy expensive wine. Your budget is $10. But it's also more than $4. The really cheap stuff tends to be vinegary, and that's only going to get worse when you heat it up. You want the fruitiest wine you can possibly get, with just a hint of refreshing acidity. Lucky you. This is beaujolais season—the lovely cherry-scented French gamay wines that will remind you of more-expensive Burgundy (pinot noir!). They're low in grippy, mouthdrying tannins—key to making this drink work—and they aren't usually oaked. Also look for Spanish garnacha and Italian nero d'avola.
● Warning: This is a drink, so pass on the solid stuff. People love adding raisins to mulled wine. They sink to the bottom of your glass and it's disgusting to clean up. If you insist, bloom the raisins in Luxardo and serve them on the side.
● France: You need sugar. About ½ cup of sugar per bottle to be precise. But why use sugar when you have… Sauternes? This long-revered semillion-based dessert wine brings more than 100 grams of sugar per liter. (I had to look that up, too: it's about ½ cup!) A liter of this stuff will totally overwhelm your drink, but a few splashes (maybe a glass worth) will get you there. Reduce it for a few minutes in a separate pot, mix that with a quarter cup of honey, and get it in the pot.
● What about Brett Favre: Traditional Norwegian mulled wine has cardamom, cinnamon and clove. For a culture whose food is usually a variation on the color “paste,” let's not sell them short on the one thing they learned how to season properly. Crush five whole cardamom pods with the heel of your hand and put them in with one whole cinammon or cassia stick and three whole cloves. Better yet, bundle them together in cheesecloth so you don't have to fish them out later.
● China: Three whole star anise. There is nothing better. You think Christmas smells like nutmeg. It does not. It smells like star anise.
● India: For Godsake, if you ask me (I'm slightly biased), this whole idea comes from here. Without us, er, India, what you know as punch would be made with pinecones and twigs and… apple pie! So I held the secret ingredient for last, definitely not typical, but the perfect accent to a good mulled wine: garam masala. This holy Hindi blend of spices is a secret in every household, but is strongest in its aroma of clove, cumin, and nutmeg. If you want to make your own, do whatever Madhur Jaffrey says. Otherwise, just buy a tin from nearest Indian grocery store. Strange? Worried it won't make you feel all warm and cozy and full of love? Need I remind who wrote the Kama Sutra.
● The Melting Pot: In many ways, the blend itself is the American component. But if you think I've shrifted the USA, then let America handle the fruit. Whether that's a thin slice of Georgia peach, a wide strip of Florida orange peel, a handful of Door County cherries or wild Maine blueberries—muddle and steep them in the broth and strain before serving or use them as a garnish.
Maybe that's enough to bring us all together.
Makes five servings.
● 1 bottle (750 mL) of fruity red wine (Beaujolais, garnacha, Bourgogne Rouge, nero d'avola—not cabernet, not merlot)
● 3 ounces of sweet Sauternes, Monbazillac, or moscato, or 2 ounces Tokaji Escenzia
● ¼ cup clover or orange blossom honey
● Spices: 5 whole cardamom pods crushed, 3 whole cloves, 1 cinammon stick or ½ tsp ground cinammon, 3 whole star anise, shaker of garam masala
● Californian Meyer lemon peel
Warm the red wine in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until it starts to steam over medium-low heat. Do not bring to a boil. In a separate pot, heat the 3 ounces of sweet wine until reduced by a third—about five to seven minutes. Add the reduction to the warm red wine, along with all spices except the garam masala. Turn off heat and steep for 10 minutes. Ladle into mugs, leaving the whole spices behind, and top each with a shake of garam masala. Twist a wide Meyer lemon peel above each mug, dab it on the rim, and drop it in before serving. Make sure you have the right glasses, though. An old, tempered pickle jar will do.
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Nilay Gandhi is the proprietor of 750mL.
Photo from Flickr by Miss Karen.