It's that time of year, even in southern California, when if you get up pre-dawn, you have to scrape ice off your windshield with a credit card. That's just one reason one's alcohol thoughts (if, perhaps, not pre-dawn thoughts) might turn to warmed wine. There are numerous benefits to mulled wine: it puts you in touch with a centuries-old tradition; it makes the house smell like a spice shop; it gives you an excuse to use those bottles of wine you can't believe your friends brought over (you can heat up plonk with less fear you're hurting good wine); it allows you to use more of the citrus growing in your yard; it actually does taste delicious.
First and foremost, mulled wine is structure much more than stricture. I will provide one possible recipe for you, with a couple of unusual twists, but do what pleases you. Some people add vanilla bean or extract, as they want more of a baked good flavor. Some recipes, like the Scandinavian Glögg, ask you to float sliced almonds in the drink. Now, I like almonds, but I'm not interested in making a wine sundae. So, follow your taste. Basically, all you need to do is start with this simple equation: wine + sweetener + spice + heat = mulled wine. Commence caroling.
Also note that while heated spiced wine is a tradition, most of those old recipes are a bit frightful. Even the ever-entertaining Professor Jerry Thomas, often thought of as the first modern bartender, has some perfectly putrid mulled wines in his classic The Bon Vivant's Companion or How To Mix Drinks from the late 1800s, one of which begins, "Beat up the whites and the yolks of the [nine] eggs separately, the sugar with the yolks." Wine omelet, here we come!
Instead, this recipe calls for a bit of zip with the spice and a sweetener no Victorian could have imagined -- agave nectar. When in California....
Mission Mulled Wine
3 oz. light agave nectar
juice 2 oranges (larger)
juice 1 lemon (smaller)
1 ½ sticks cinnamon (2" sticks)
3 cloves, whole
3 allspice, whole
3 black peppercorns
6 dime-sized slices of fresh ginger
1 bottle red wine
Add all the ingredients except for the wine into a non-reactive pot. Let bubble over medium heat for 10 minutes, so the spices give up some of their essence to the juices.
Turn heat to simmer and add the wine. Let heat gently -- do not let it boil -- for about 15 minutes (let it get to just above the temperature you will want to drink it). Strain into mugs. Feel free to garnish with cinnamon sticks or orange peels, if you want to be fancy about it.
Recipe notes: The agave nectar not only makes this a bit more Californian/Mexican, it also blends more fully than granulated sugar. I know all the arguments about it not really being better for you, but you're adding it to alcohol, after all. This is no time to get high and mighty. As for the peppercorns, they add a tiny bit of heat, a bit of the back of the throat bite. In some ways, they just up your wine's tannins for you. And that ginger, it gives sweet, heat, and spice, so don't leave it out and don't try to use powdered ginger or anything like that. The straining part gets out fresh ginger, but powdered ginger would leave a nasty slick in your fine potion.
And as for what wine to use, cheaper is fine. That said, you don't want to cook the wine, you want to heat it. And since you're going to put it through a bit of a test -- heat, spice, citrus -- it's better to use a heartier red wine varietal. Poor defenseless pinot noir would retire to its fainting couch with such treatment, so use a syrah or cabernet or something similarly brawny.