Mulled wine is a seasonal staple but although it's easy to make it's also easy to spoil. Here are my top tips for getting it right
What type of wine?
You can mull white wine (though I’d rather mull cider) but most people prefer a red. It needs to be inexpensive, obviously, but that doesn’t mean it should be undrinkable so don’t just chuck in the tail ends of bottles you may have hanging round the kitchen. And you don’t want a wine that’s too heavily oaked though that’s relatively unlikely if it’s cheap.
There’s a fair amount of inexpensive own-label Corbières I’ve noticed lately which would fit the bill perfectly or try a basic Portuguese red. Most recipes add water as well which brings down the cost and stops guests getting too plastered but adjust the amount to the strength of your wine.
What type of spices?
Whole spices work better than ground ones otherwise you can get an unpleasant powdery sensation as you drink. Cinnamon is probably the most popular spice but you could also use cloves, cardamom (lightly crush a few pods) ginger and nutmeg. Some recommend star anise but use sparingly if you don't want your mulled wine to taste of aniseed.
You can also buy mulling spices wrapped in muslin (better than in teabags) though make sure they're not from a dusty old packet. Look for a ‘use by’ date. A better option, if you’re short of time, is to buy a mulled wine cordial like Belvoir's - also great for those who simply want a mulled drink without the alcohol.
Most recipes call for sugar but you might want to add a little less than they suggest if your wine is particularly soft and fruity or if you add port. White or demerara sugar is fine - soft brown sugar adds a slightly fudgier flavour which works well in the recipe below. Some people (including Delia) advocate honey but I tend to think it has too dominant a flavour
Orange is particularly good with mulled wine. It could be a whole orange studded with cloves, a strip of orange peel or a dash of an orange-flavoured liqueur such as Cointreau, Grand Marnier or Triple Sec. Not orange juice - or any other fruit juice - as you want your mulled wine to be clear, not cloudy. And without ‘bits’.
Personally I like a good slug of ruby port in my mulled wine - not the cheapest out there but a vintage character or ‘Special Reserve’ type or, if you have some, some Late Bottled Vintage. Brandy is also a common addition but if you add port you don’t need it. Ginger wine or a ginger liqueur may also add the kick you're looking for; some sloe or damson gin an extra dash of plummy flavour but don't make the mistake of adding too many different types of booze. More isn't necessarily better ;-)
The art of mulling
This is the important bit. You need to infuse the wine long enough with the spices to take on their flavour but DON’T ON ANY ACCOUNT LET THE MIXTURE BOIL as you’ll be left with a bitter taste. Slow and low is the way to go. And it shouldn’t be served piping hot, just comfortably - and comfortingly - warm.
Some (including Jamie) recommend making a syrup first with the spices, sugar and wine but again there’s the risk that you’ll bring out the bitterness of a wine by boiling it. A better option is to make a spice infused sugar syrup as advocated by Susy Atkins in her excellent How to Make your own Drinks.
Cups or glasses?
Glasses are more traditional - and attractive - but unless you have a set with its own metal holders you’re probably better off with small coffee cups. A ladle with a spout is useful to dispense mulled wine at speed if that doesn’t sound too Pippa Middleton-ish or pour into a jug first before you top up the cups or glasses
Here’s an alternative to the usual mulled wine recipes with an extra hit of orange:
Orange and cardamom mulled wine
Makes 14-16 cups or glasses
2 x 75cl bottles of full bodied red wine
510ml (18 fl oz) water
1 unwaxed orange studded with cloves + a few orange slices for serving
thinly pared rind from half a lemon
2 cinnamon sticks
6 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
A little freshly grated nutmeg
95g (3 1/2 oz) soft brown sugar
100ml (3 1/2 fl oz) orange flavoured liqueur such as Cointreau or Grand Marnier
Place the wine and water in a large saucepan. Add the orange, lemon rind, spices and sugar and heat gently until almost boiling. Turn down to the lowest possible heat (the surface should barely tremble) and simmer for half an hour to allow the spices to infuse thoroughly. Add the orange liqueur or brandy then reheat gently. Strain into a large, warmed bowl and float a few thin slices of orange on top. Ladle into small cups or glasses. Serve with mince pies.
You can find more mulled drink recipes on my site here.