When it's in the 50s out, one doesn't think of mulled wine—one thinks instead, say, of a cool crisp sauvignon blanc (as Sasha Smith points out in this video on her fabulous site Spin the Bottle). But it was a much colder moment when I was asked to participate in a mulled-wine contest held yesterday by my pal Sean McQueen, maestro of the Vinetalk Tumblr blog. A month ago, who knew it'd be such lovely spring-like weather now? (Whom aside from Jesus, that is.)
Since it's March I was already thinking of in-season ingredients to use in my update of this Gourmet recipe from 2000. (There's a totally Cheever-esque recipe from 1973 that incorporates ruby port and flavored brandy, but I decided a brew that rich is better imbibed in the dark heart of winter, when all you want to do is get drunk and screw.)
As you can see, the recipe is appealingly simple: 2 navel oranges, 1 lemon, 2 bottles of a dry red wine, 1 cup of sugar, 10 black peppercorns, 8 whole cloves, 4 whole star anise, 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg. For my version, I replaced the navel oranges with blood oranges and the lemon with a Meyer lemon. I also ditched the sugar in favor of a beautiful Tupelo honey from Florida (a gift from my writer friend A.N. Devers), and took out the cloves, star anise, and nutmeg altogether. Given the time of year, I didn't want my wine to taste too Christmas-y, though I did throw in a bit of five-spice powder just to have an element of that flavor, like a memory. I also threw in two vanilla beans, halved lengthwise, some cardamom powder (I would've preferred pods, but the Whole Foods I stopped by at the last minute was out of them), and—wait for it—pink peppercorns, which are quite citrus-y. If I had a secret weapon, it was this Brazilian product. (And now I'm kind of obsessed with them: What else can I use pink peppercorns with?)
On site at the NU Hotel in Cobble Hill, I prepared my concoction whilst millions of people around the world watched Joanie Rivers and sundry other red-carpet hoo-haw ahead of the Oscars. For the wine I used a "two-buck Chuck" cabernet sauvignon from Trader Joe's, both for sheer affordability and its simple quality, which I knew would take up the flavors I was putting in. (If there's ever a reason to buy super-cheap wine, mulled wine is it, since it's not about the wine so much as it's the flavors.) I turned the stove (in this case, a hot plate!) up to medium just to get it warm, then poured in two bottles of the wine. I'd already zested the blood oranges and Meyer lemon, so I threw those in, and then I squeezed the juices from each directly into the pot, leaving half of the evacuated lemon in there for good measure. After I popped the vanilla beans and peppercorns in, the rest was easy: honey, cardamom, and five spices, all to taste. (I must've put in about four ounces of honey to get the concoction just sweet enough.) The aroma was lovely, as you'd expect, and the taste of the drink—once everything swished around in the pot for a bit (at a simmer or just under)—was perfect: the citrus was right there, along with a hint of vanilla and just enough of the spices to give it that true mulled-wine character. One woman who sampled my brew said she tasted lavender—my favorite comment of the evening.
While I didn't win—I placed second after my buddy Gary Hunt, the lighting designer for the new Good Units spot in the Hudson Hotel—I did get Food & Wine's 2010 wine guide for my efforts. It's an amazing resource I didn't have yet, so I was thrilled. Gary nicely presented his wine with garnishes, which might've put him over the edge. (He also had a nontraditional mulled wine with apples, berries, and some other ingredients that made for a unique taste.) If I were serving my wine, which I've dubbed the Spring Invitational, at home, I'd include a round slice of blood orange right on top.
So though the forecast remains almost balmy, it's bound to get freezing again one last time before spring really comes on. (We might even get a last blast of snow.) When winter breathes that last gasp, I'll be savoring a mug of Spring Invitational. In the meantime, I'll be drinking more weather-appropriate wines, like the gorgeous Albariño I had while watching the Oscars with friends last night.