The Wine Wise Guy dispenses with the notion that heating wine with spices is a good idea.

By Anthony Giglio
Updated May 24, 2017
Don’t do it.
© Getty Images/Alloy

It’s bound to happen sometime during the winter, and you might not be able to avoid it without the situation getting awkward. I’m talking, of course, about being offered a glass of warm, mulled wine.

It happened to me last week and it was compounded by the fact that the host—who has a pretty impressive wine cellar stocked with all sought-after names—boasted that he’d made the stuff with some old Bordeaux from the '80s that he forgot to drink when it was in its prime.

Cheers to you, I thought but didn’t say, hoarding great wine only to boil it with cinnamon sticks and serve it in a coffee mug. How did we ever arrive at the belief that serving wine this way was a good idea?

There are countless theories about the origin of mulled wine, but ultimately they all go back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The approach then was to make the best of bad or past-prime wine by adding spices and sweeteners to cover its flaws. The thinking went something like, well, better to drink adulterated wine than polluted water. Fair enough. But since then, water has become less likely to give you dysentery every time you take a sip, and winemaking has gotten better and better along the way, too. And yet, we’re still mulling the stuff.

Maybe, as one of the party guests drinking the boiled Bordeaux near me suggested, it’s that Charles Dickens romanticized the idea of mulled punch during the Victorian Era, and thus we still feel a fondness for the idea. After all, towards the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge offers Bob Cratchit a bowl of “Smoking Bishop,” which, according to Punch, refers not to a clergyman with a stogie but a roasted clove and orange-infused port, warmed and mulled with baking spices and further fortified with red wine. When a sour creep like Scrooge gets transformed into a generous and warm-hearted fellow, as he does at the end of Dickens’ book, we feel all warm inside; hence, perhaps, our long-term fondness for this bizarre concoction?

Regardless, most modern-day versions employ orange, cinnamon, nutmeg, a cheap (or not-so-cheap!) dry red wine and a bit of port or brandy. But I say, bah! You know what belongs in a coffee mug? Coffee! You know what oranges are best used for? Eating! And nutmeg? Put it in a cookie or a cake—anything but a perfectly innocent bottle of wonderful-on-its-own red wine.