Mulling things over

I have a long history with mulled wine/gluhwein/vin chaud or whatever else warm wine with spices in happens to be called in different cultures/parts of the zeitgeist (my favourite being Glogg, because it’s really nice to say). I’ve used it to accidentally get an astrophysics department at a top university wasted and to choosing a weekend away with mulled wine being a major deciding factor in where to go.

The tradition at UCL Astrophysics was (and probably still is) that the first year PhD students organise the christmas party. I was rather responsibly put in charge of gluhwein by a German PhD student who was heading back to Munich before the party (she was amazing, and made us a batch of Lebkuchen before she went). I duly entirely ignored her recipe (or rather the quantities). Several boxes of supermarket Merlot (while I know you can now get great wine in boxes, this wasn’t it), a whole bottle each of the finest brandy and amareto that Lidl did sell, a couple of kilos of sugar a handful of cloves, a handful of cinnamon bark and two packs of “value” oranges in a tea urn later, we had a vague analogue of mulled wine. It did the trick!

A couple of years ago we wanted a weekend break in December. There’s loads of great places to go for Christmas markets. We chose Brugge/Bruges, as it was rumoured to have the best mulled wine. The turned out not to be the case, but we did have a lovely weekend (mostly avoiding the really rather mediocre Christmas market but enjoying the beautiful medieval town, fine beer and flemish primitive art). Which brings me to a key problem with mulled wine in general.

It’s not very good.

I’m not sure if it’s that people (me included) always use bad wine for it. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s actually a concept that just isn’t as good in reality, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had a good mulled wine.

That brings me to now. I thought I’d try actually putting some thought into mulling some wine, and use wine that I’d actually drink rather than any old dross/tombola wine. I think for all it mostly being a northern European thing, it needs to be quite a big Mediterranean wine, so I’ve gone for a perennial favourite Cote Du Rhone from Guigal.

I’ve learned over the years that when making stuff with booze, keeping the sugar and alcohol separate as long as possible is key, so I started by making a mulled syrup. Melting sugar with slices of orange and a pile of spices but don’t boil, we’re after a syrup, not a caramel (maybe I should try going for a caramel next time?!?).

Then I poured over the wine, turned off the heat and left it to steep for 20 minutes (again no with the boiling, we’re aiming for steep, not stew) and then finished it with a good slug of brandy.

I’m sure this is supposed to be a nice glass and a cinnamon stick with some tea lights in the background, ah well.

The results? Less than the sum of its parts.

It was noticeable better, though I’m not sure it was worth the effort vs the everything in a pan. It’s tasty and made both lovely girlfriend and I very happy. Maybe that’s the key to mulled wine. It’s not a great gourmet thing, but it does bring much joy.

Recipe (note amounts are very approximate!):
150g golden caster sugar
One orange
4 cloves
2 star anise
1 supermarket sized cinnamon stick
3 slices (a couple of mm thick) of fresh ginger
4 allspice berries
5 black peppercorns
1 piece of mace that I happened to find while looking for the allspice
bottle of (good? maybe not!) red wine
A slightly less generous glug of brandy than I used (you could also use rum, amaretto or anything else vaguely festive)

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