A glowing account of glühwein

PICTURE the scene: The year is 1321 and we are in the cold, poorly-lit confines of the wine cellar in an ancient monastery, which is built on the steep, snowy slopes above a small village in Württemberg, Germany.

Brother Klaus takes a sip of the deep red Spätburgunder that Brother Fritz has decanted, from the musty wooden barrel at his feet, into a clay goblet.

“Zo… vot do you zink, Brother Klaus?” asks Fritz, anxiously fiddling with the fraying chord that gathers the shapeless habit around his short, portly torso.

Klaus creases his nose into his brow and swirls another slug of wine across his teeth and tongue. He pauses and takes a deep breath: “Yah, Brother Fritz,” he says, swallowing the mouthful and setting the goblet down on the flagstone floor, “you are right. Zis is not qualitätswein. Nein, zis is not even tafelwein. It is not gut, ja?”

The Brothers are worried, and for good reason. Important guests are on their way to test the vintage and it has not fared well. Vat to do…vat to do?

Peering through a tiny, metal-barred window onto the icy, leafless vines outside, Klaus shakes his head sadly: “Vee might as vell serve zem herbal tea,” he mutters, as much to himself as to fretting Fritz, who now sits forlornly upon a barrel, swirling the remnants of the offensive wine about in his goblet.

And thus was the genesis of glühwein. Troubled, the two monks set about doctoring the second-rate Spätburgunder. But, unlike some alleged modern day winemakers, they did not seek out vials of essence containing passion fruit, gooseberry, green pepper or the like for this wine. Instead Brother Fritz, who each night suffered the agony of a large cavity in his third left molar, scrounged about in his pockets for a handful of gloves, while Brother Klaus cadged half a jar of honey and some cinnamon sticks from Brother Max in the kitchen. They poured the wine into a large cauldron and hung it over the fire. As it warmed, they stirred in the spices and honey, adding handfuls of almonds and raisins as they worked, and pausing regularly to sample the concoction from a large copper ladle.

By the time their guests rattled across the monastery moat, Brothers Fritz and Klaus were rosy-faced and beaming. Their substandard Spätburgunder had blossomed into delicious warm nectar, which – as he reflected upon Fritz’s shiny, red cheeks – Klaus introduced as “a special new varietal we call… glühwein (glow wine)”.

The guests’ initial response to the brew is lost in the annals of time, but their eventual assessment, as it appeared in the 1321 version of Jan Schplatter’s Wine Guide, indicates that the warm glühwein hit the right spot that cold wintry German night.

The entry read: “Glühwein **** (four stars) 1319, tasted from cauldron, warm, unexpectedly spicy with strong overtones of honey and enticing nut. Dense with layers of sweet, yet piquant bouquet. Light hint of oak. Epitome of good winter quaffing.”

Since then, glühwein and variations thereof – some people add ginger and citrus, usually in the form of orange or lemon peel – have become increasingly popular in Europe, particularly around Christmas and New Year’s Day. In Germany, people traditionally gather to drink hot mugs of glühwein at outdoor Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas markets), which usually open in mid-December to sell ornaments, advent calendars, gifts and other Christmassy things.

In France, mulled wine is known as Vin Chaud while the Italian’s call it Vin Brulé. Visit Poland in the cooler months and you can drink warm Grzane Wino. In Hungary, the beverage is known as Forralt Bor and the Swedish version is called Glogg. In the southeast European country of Moldova, warm Izvar is made from Cabernet or Merlot, black pepper, cloves, sugar and honey.

Although South Africa is not a glühwein-guzzling nation, there are certainly enough chilly winter nights each winter to warrant sipping a warm cocktail or two.

“Although we are not huge consumers of the drink, each winter many South Africans drink Glühwein. Most have either moved here from Europe – often from Germany and Austria – or they have travelled extensively and experienced the drink abroad. But many others experience it here for the first time and simply enjoy the great taste,” says Roger Knoll, who – with his wife, Jutta – produces and markets a product called Jodler’s Glühwein Mix in Pretoria.

The couple, who are of German descent, created the mix about four years ago in an effort to replicate the “traditional German Glühwein taste”. What emerged, says Knoll, is a ready-to-use, pre-blended syrup concentrate that is brewed from “natural, traditional ingredients with the solids sieved out, leaving the aromatic and spicy blend. It consists of sugar, water, glucose, citric acid, spices, herbs and contains no preservatives or colourants”.

The mix is simply added to any dry red wine, heated – glühwein should never be boiled as this alters the taste and causes the alcohol to evaporate ¬– and served with slices of lemon.

“Besides its warming affects, the nice thing about glühwein is that it is an inexpensive way to make a not-so-great wine into an enjoyable drink. With the mix, it is really easy and convenient as all the basic ingredients are in one bottle –which has a three year lifespan even after opening – and the outcome is very authentic,” says Knoll.

Also commercially available in South Africa are re-usable sachets of glühwein spice mix that you simply simmer in the liquid as you prepare the drink. They usually contain cinnamon, cloves, citrus peels and all spice mix. A word of warning though; because of the seasonal nature of glühwein, it is possible that these are pretty old by the time you purchase them or get around to using them and, in that case, the flavours can be all but lost. Instead, take a clove out of Brother Fritz’s pocket and make a batch yourself from scratch. It is not that difficult and the results will have you glowing.

Glühwein recipe
(Makes 24 glasses)

Ingredients:
2 bottles red wine
1 cup sugar
3 cups water
1 lemon, sliced
20 whole cloves
6 to 8 cinnamon sticks
1 orange, sliced for garnish

Directions:
Mix water, lemon and spices and simmer for an hour. Strain. Heat but do not boil the red wine. Add wine to hot water mixture. Ladle into cups and serve with half a slice of orange.

(This article was first published in The Weekender.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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