Christmas is a lot of work. There, I said it. As a kid, Christmas just magically happens. But, once you cross the threshold into adulthood, you discover that you’re the magic. You are now the chief elf, responsible for all the decorating, tree-wrangling, shopping, wrapping (how can I possibly be out of Scotch tape?!?), shipping, cooking and baking. It’s exhausting.
Here’s a thing: I never got around to putting up the outdoor lights this year. And you know what? I gave myself a pass. Competitive Christmas-ing is for the birds. My house does not need to look like a winter wonderland. I’ll keep my porch light on and call it good. Think of all the electricity I’m saving.
I’ve been wrapping and baking all day (which required an unscheduled trip to Walmart for supplies), and it’s time to put my feet up and enjoy a glass or two of Christmas magic: Glühwein.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure (and seriously, if that’s you, fix this immediately), Glühwein is a hot, spiced wine traditionally enjoyed during the Christmas holiday season. Why Christmas? Well, there’s an excellent academic answer (keep reading), but I suspect it’s because no one wants to drink hot wine in July. Spiced wine is enjoyed all over the world, and it has all sorts of geographic aliases. My family is Scandinavian and German, so I’ve always called it Glögg or Glühwein, interchangeably, and depending on my mood.
So whose bright idea was it to spice wine?
Hot spiced wine goes back all the way to ancient Greek and Roman times — back when fermentation was a happy accident and wine was stored in porous vessels that allowed it to spoil, and spoil quickly. How quickly? After harvest in the fall, you had about 3 months to enjoy your wine before it started to taste like Neptune’s salad dressing . . . which would be right about Christmas time. And then what do you do with your wine? You don’t throw it out — you toss in a handful of spices and heat it up!
During the Middle Ages in Europe, people didn’t drink much water (on account of the cholera living in it), so they drank a lot of beer and wine. A spiced wine called Hippocras (or Ypocras), named after Hippocrates, was very popular as a healthy alternative to water — it was said to ward off everything from scurvy to the plague. The wine was filtered through a device Hippocrates invented to filter water, called the Hippocrates Sleeve (which is what’s going on in that picture⬆︎).
Normally, I make my own Glühwein, but we sell two pre-made spiced wines at Wegmans, and I’ve been curious to try them side by side.
Nürnberger Glühwein ($6.99)
From Gerstacker Weinkelleri in Bavaria, Germany. This is the famous (and essentially copyright protected) spiced wine that’s served at the Chriskindlmarkt in Nürnberg. It’s a full-bodied red wine, sweetened, and blended with cinnamon and nutmeg. And some other secret spices. It’s totally drinkable, but has a sharp edge to it that’s pulling my focus.
Vin Glogg ($11.99)
From Glunz Family Winery in Paso Robles California.
This is a Scandinavian inspired spiced wine — half dry red wine and half port-style wine, sweetened, and blended with nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamon and orange peel. Pretty damn good. I’d buy another bottle. A lot smoother and cozier than the Glühwein.
If you want to make your own Glühwein, here’s my recipe (which is one of those, not-really-a-recipe recipes):
- 1 bottle of red wine (don’t use the good stuff, you’re spicing it for Pete’s sake)
- 3/4 to 1 cup of sugar (more or less to taste)
- 2 or 3 cinnamon sticks
- 10 whole cloves (give or take)
- Star anise
Cut the orange in half, and juice it into a medium saucepan. Shove the cloves into the orange and put the orange, cinnamon sticks and star anise into the pan. Add the wine and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. DO NOT BOIL the Glühwein. Seriously. Don’t boil it. You’ll wreck it.
Ta-Da . . . Glühwein!
There are hundreds of recipes and variations for spiced wine floating around the Internet. They’re all very similar, but vary little bit here and there by country and tradition.
England – Mulled Wine
The word mulled comes from the Old English, meaning mixed or muddled. I was really hoping it meant “thinking wine”, but that must be New English.
Trivia: Mulled wine has a great little cameo in the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. While visiting a bar, Charles the Angel orders “mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves.” Cheers!
Germany & Austria – Glühwein
It’s pronounced Gloo-vine, and translates to glow-wine. The Germans have some fantastic words, do they not? If you’ve ever been to Germany at Christmas time, you know it’s COLD in Germany at Christmas. And the Germans embrace the cold – it doesn’t seem to phase them at all. But I know their secret: Glühwein.
Scandinavia – Glögg
When Scandinavians first tasted spiced wine, they thought, “Hey, this is really good. You know what would make it better? Vodka.” And then Glögg happened. Scandinavians also add Aquavit (another vodka-esque spirit) to their Glögg. And a handful of cardamom pods. Skål!
France – Vin Chaud
The French add Cognac to their spiced wine. Well of course they do. And peppercorns. A votre santé!
Italy – Vin Brulé
Vin Brulé means “burnt wine”. The Italians like to ignite their spiced wine on the stovetop and let the flames burn themselves out before serving. Outstanding. Salute!
Russia – Глинтвейн
The Russians call their spiced wine, Глинтвейн, which is pronounced, Глинтвейн. The Russians like to add vodka to their spiced wine . . . shocker. На здоровье!
Time to pour myself another glass of Christmas magic.