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Case Study | Mull This

Photograph by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times, arrangement by Toby Cecchini

I’ve never had a particularly great rapport with mulled wine, that staple of ski slopes and Christmas markets throughout Northern Europe. In theory it should be a tremendously restorative, literally heartwarming (one tries to avoid the reference to Gemütlichkeit) tonic from the alpine quiver, carried to table preferably by a St. Bernard. In reality, however, I couldn’t count how many frankly off-putting mulled wines I’ve choked down slopeside over the years: harsh reds gussied up with a load of sugar and overwhelming spices to cover their unpalatable edge, then cooked, which only intensifies the jangle. Nein, danke.

But the other week found me clomping mid-blizzard into the Upholstery Store, the year-old wine bar semi-attached to Wallse, Kurt Gutenbrunner’s restaurant on Washington Street in the West Village. The waiter offered gluhwein (literally “glow wine,” in German, for its chuffing effect), and it was so in sync with the weather that I couldn’t refuse. The hot elixir he poured from an antique silver teapot was unlike any mulled wine I’ve ever had: softly spiced, broadened with vanilla but by no measure overly sweet. I was, in fact, paying no attention to the drink, lost in a business meeting, when I took my first sip and was pulled astray: Oh, oops: waiter, there’s something exquisite in my glass. …

While varying wildly on ingredients, the majority of recipes for what would seem the obvious process of mulling wine will tell you to follow roughly the same protocol: dump sugar and spices into a big pan of red wine (typically, although some people use whites as well) and fire away. Some say to boil it up hard and fast, some say cook it slow and low for hours. All make for what Gutenbrunner describes as “a bad Christmas cookie.” If there is a secret to his delicious gluhwein, it’s that he doesn’t actually cook it. He infuses the spices at room temp and not for terribly long — a few hours, he says — before straining them off, and then heats it only for serving. This small change in process comes off in the final drink as a revelation, teasing the flavors subtly out of the spices and citrus rather than wringing them out while boiling off the floral and citrus high notes.

Though entirely forthcoming about his ingredients, Gutenbrunner wouldn’t give me an exact recipe, emphasizing how using instinct and what appeals to one’s own palate is often the best way to cook. After recommending a northern Italian red as his base, he brushed it aside breezily: “Look, use what wine you have. But just don’t kill the wine.” He took a similar tack on quantities: none provided. Use … some. Enough, but not too much. Maddening if you’re an A-type, but an amusing Zen exercise that reminds you that all recipes are really just suggestions.

The safety net in this game of instinct is that without the heat, you really can play much more fast and loose, while the spices, vanilla and sweeteners still do cover up a litany of ills. I made my first batch with two bottles of D-grade southern French merlot I had laying about — cooking wine, literally. I cut the citrus peels off roughly, including the pith; used a pliers to crack up the cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and star anise; left out some of his ingredients; and added others I found in my cupboard. I forgot about it for almost a day and a half, and still the result was astonishingly nice. Gutenbrunner mentioned a friend who likes to add orange juice to his. “Really anything goes with this recipe,” he says, adding that you can also goose it with a high-strength rum to make what the Teutons call jagertee, or hunter’s tea.

I found that a squeeze of fresh lemon dropped into mine at the end brought it all to an extraordinarily perfect balance, and now I’m watching the icy rain outside with my hands around a hot mug and a conspirator’s smirk on my face.

Gluhwein ingredients, from Kurt Gutenbrunner:

Red wine
Frozen huckleberries
Star anise
Mace blossom (ground)
Vanilla bean
Orange peel
Lime zest
Black pepper

To which I add my own options:

Peels of any alternate citrus: grapefruit, tangerine, lemon, pomelo
Powdered ginger
Dried elderflower

In a large, nonreactive (glass, plastic or stainless) bowl or pot, pour room temperature wine. Add whatever ingredients you like except the sugar and honey. Cover and macerate for anywhere from a couple of hours to a day, tasting at intervals to determine the strength of the spices. When the spices are prevalent to your liking, strain off and add honey and sugar (either or both) in small amounts just until it begins to seem sweet. Always underplay the sweetness; you can add more later, if need be. Keep in an airtight jar and refrigerate. When ready to drink, heat lightly on low, never boiling. Garnish as you please, with a cinnamon stick, a slice of orange spiked with cloves, a squeeze of lemon, a dusting of nutmeg, a stag’s horn. …