Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine. In this edition, Jared Weinstock (of Venice, California’s Dudley Market, where he seeks out wine from producers who keep the environment in mind), considers a holiday classic, mulled wine: I'm going to make a mulled wine at some point for this holidays, but what is the best kind of wine to use for that?
If you are going to make a classic mulled wine, I would recommend something that has relatively high alcohol, lots of fruit, and relatively high tannins. Wines like a California Zinfandel, some Grenache, Merlot, or Touriga Nacional from Dão would be good bets. These sturdier wines can withstand a bit of heat without some aromatics or too much alcohol becoming volatile and burning off, and can really compliment some of the spiced flavors (clove, star anise, cinnamon) without the wine becoming drowned out by spice.
Some wines I would recommend for mulled wine would be Broc Cellars Vinestarr Zinfandel from Sonoma County because of its juiciness, Habit Red, a Bordeaux Blend, because it carries these well integrated cinnamon and sweet wood notes that could benefit the spices added to the wine. I would also recommend Quinta do Escudial from Dão, a juicy wine with firm grape tannins and lots of dark-fruit character. I would also consider wines from Inkwell Wines out of Mclaren Vale, Australia. Mulled wines need wine with a fruit-forward nature, so lots of warmer climate reds would do well.
Mulled wines have been produced for thousands of years, being mostly popularized through the western world by the Ancient Romans. People have been making it with local ingredients in uniquely traditional ways, and so there is no true "best" wine for the job. I would experiment. Adding rustic apple and pear ciders (a little brettanomyces never hurts), oxidized wines like a blended Madeira (particularly from the Bual grape or Tinto Negramoll if you are using citrus seasonings), tawny port, or even a vin doux naturel like Banyuls would be a fun and interesting experiment.
Some guidelines and tips for mulling your own wine
Never over heat the wine. There are some wines that should be able to withstand a bit of heat, and others that just crumble when heated up. I would recommend infusing the spices with a “low-and-slow” method. Warm a pan with the spices (possibly even lightly toast the spices) and add the wine or liquid. Let it heat until it’s warm and almost too hot to touch. Alcohol starts to vaporize at 173 degrees Fahrenheit, so you want to keep the temperature well below that. Turn the pot off and let the spices steep for 20 to 30 minutes. I like to finish with an orange wedge (and maybe a splash of brandy).
As far as the specific ingredients, you can really make it your own. A classic mulled wine for me consists of a cheap, extracted and full red wine, clove, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, a touch of honey, brandy, and an orange slice to garnish when served. You can throw in cardamom, lemon zest, chamomile flowers, apple or pear, or even ginger.
Another twist on mulled wine is to experiment with things like bay leaf, sage, or tea infusions (black tea, chai) or even hibiscus and fruit infusions like peach and late season stone fruit, bramble fruits (think warm sangria) etc.
If you don’t want all of the spices floating in your drink, you can sachet the spices by tying them inside of a cheesecloth, much like a large teabag.
Do I want to just go for the cheap stuff since I'll be heating it?
If you’re making mulled wine, you shouldn’t completely care about the quality of the wine. All of the subtle notes in wine will be overshadowed by the intense spices and sweetness you add, so again, don't buy a Burgundy premier cru or a Trousseau from Jura or even a Chinon. Sure, you should buy a cheap wine that is somewhat palatable, but purchasing really quality wine for mulled wine is a huge waste of money. Why? Because you are most likely making mulled wine in batch (you’ll need bottles and bottles), you are usually drinking and serving to many people, (as in a holiday party, etc), and you should already have consumed quality beverages before, such as tasty Champagne.