Wine Expert: Spice Up Your Holidays

Its the time of year when we gather to spend time with families and friends. But this year many are looking for ways to get into the holiday spirit without dropping too much cash. Wine expert Callie Crossley offers a lesson on a thrifty, but delicious option: mulled wine.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And finally, no winter holiday is complete without a warm beverage in your hand, is it? So that's why we begin our Winter Sipping series today with one traditional beverage you may not have enjoyed in a while, mulled wine. Our guest is wine expert Callie Crossley. She's author of the wine blog, The Crushed Grape Report, and a member of the Boston Wine Writers. Welcome back to the program, Callie.

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY (Wine Expert; Blogger, The Crushed Grape Report) Hey.

MARTIN: What makes mulled wine mulled?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, I'm told that the mulled expression actually came from an English dialect of the 14th and early 15th century, meaning mixed or muddled. So it's mulled because you're using some spices and you're adding to wine and it's a warm drink.

MARTIN: Is there some - something that has to be present for it to be mulled wine? I assume wine.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Yes, it you have to have wine.

MARTIN: But is there some other basic thing that identifies it, basic spice, basic recipe?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, there's a variety of spices but the ones that seem to be common through all of the many variations are cloves, definitely cinnamon and some fruit. It could be an orange, it could be a lemon, it could be a combination of those things. And sugar.

MARTIN: And sugar?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Sugar, yes, and that's...

MARTIN: Now I'm getting interested. Now I'm excited.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Now if you added chocolate I would be very excited, but I guess that's another beverage for another day.

Ms. CROSSLEY: One of the things that I found interesting about this is that real wine folks are very offended by mulled wine because they don't want you messing up the wine. Why are you adding sugar and adding stuff to it? My favorite wine merchant, I went to tell him I was going to try these recipes, and he just looked at me. And I said, oh, my God. I felt I was betraying the profession or something.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. So this is kind of a bootleg beverage. This is not one of the classier beverages that wine aficionado's brag about.

Ms. CROSSLEY: That's exactly right. And in fact, if you try any wine book, which I did - I have a variety of wine books - and I said, let me just see if I can find a recipe in the wine books. No. Where you can find recipes are in food or cocktail books, but you cannot find them in a wine book because the message is clear: this is not real wine to put this in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We don't care.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: Do we care? We don't care.

Ms. CROSSLEY: It's still pretty tasty.

MARTIN: What are some of the ways in which you would serve it? Is there a food you would want to pair it with? Is it part of the dessert offering? ..TEXT: Ms. CROSSLEY: No, not so much dessert. It's really more savory. But what's the great thing about mulled wine is that it can pair with so many of the kind of foods you'd have around if you're inviting people over during the holidays. Stop by, have a little snack, a little nush, we'll have a little something to drink, we'll talk, we'll laugh. It's something you can put in a Crock-Pot and it can go all day.

MARTIN: So we've done our homework. We've used the recipes you sent us to mix two samples of mulled wine. Producer Douglas Hopper is here with me. He's my designated sipper because as I think most people know, I really cannot drink because I just get stupid. So I have to have a helper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DOUGLAS HOPPER: I'm really, really happy to help.

MARTIN: Yeah, funny. I never have any trouble getting volunteers for this assignment. It's the funniest thing. So what's the first recipe, Callie? It's from - how do you say this, Veramar?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Yeah. Veramar is a vineyard in Virginia, and people may know that there are commercial vineyards in every state of the union but Virginia is one of the special states. They have some fabulous wines. So I was looking for variations on a theme, and I found that Veramar is one of the places that adds apple cider.

MARTIN: What wine do you want to - what type of wine do you want to choose?

Ms. CROSSLEY: You want to start with a base of dry red wine. Now that gives you a wide variety. I use Cabernet Sauvignon because it's full body, and if you're going to add a bunch of stuff to it, I figure it'll stand up at the end.

MARTIN: And I also see Douglas has thoughtfully added a cinnamon stick and a slice of orange for a beautiful presentation.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Ooh!

MARTIN: Thank you, Douglas. Very lovely.

HOPPER: Of course. And I should also mention that I only spent $10 on this bottle of Cabernet that I made these two samples with.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Isn't that great?

MARTIN: And what else is in there?

Ms. CROSSLEY: That's the other thing.

MARTIN: And what else is in before we have a sip?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Sugar, cinnamon, whole cloves and an orange. And one of the things I noticed in the taste test is as you leave it on sort of gently warming, the alcohol and the liquid infuses into the fruit, so it's delicious.

MARTIN: All right, let's have a little sip. Here we go.

HOPPER: All right, I'm trying it out.

MARTIN: Yummy.

HOPPER: I think it's great. I really liked the addition of the apple cider. I was a little skeptical at first because I thought it would be too sweet, but I like it.

MARTIN: Yes, me too.

HOPPER: I like it a lot.

MARTIN: You see, I don't understand that phrase, too sweet. I don't really understand - what - what does that mean? I have - I have no concept for this...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOPPER: Well, for those of us who - who don't crave sugar, it's really nice, actually.

MARTIN: There are people like that? I'm sorry to ask...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CROSSLEY: Yes, there are people. My friends, Patricia and Bill, were really drawn to the recipe with the apple cider as well. They said it sort of tasted and smelled more like the holiday to them.

MARTIN: The other recipe you sent us is from an unexpected source, "Playboy's Host and Bar Book" from 1971. Callie, you devil.

Ms. CROSSLEY: I know.

MARTIN: I'm not going to make any assumptions here, but tell us about - what makes this recipe different from the first one we tried?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, what's different is there's no apple cider, so it's just - it just feels to me - as I read it, I thought, this isn't going to be good. It's just very few spices. The sugar is still there; the lemon, in addition to the orange; all spice, in addition to the cloves and the cinnamon, and the wine. And I thought, that's it? That's - that's not going to be good. But I found it to be delicious. This was actually my favorite of the two.

MARTIN: Let's check it out. Here we go. Mmm. Douglas, what do you think?

HOPPER: I really like the lemon. I think the lemon is really nice, and it is - it doesn't taste as sweet to me. Now, Callie, what I did is I actually put a couple of slices of lemon in it and then let it simmer for about 45 minutes, and so the lemon flavor really got infused into the final product, which I - I kind of liked that.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Exactly. And remember, if you're doing this for sort of an open house kind of thing, then it would be on a very low flame or in your Crock-Pot for many hours so that infusion would really happen over a long period of time, and it's delicious.

HOPPER: Does the alcohol actually burn off when you're cooking this or when it's on a Crock-Pot for a long time at a party?

Ms. CROSSLEY: No, because all you're doing is really warming the wine, so it's not burning off as you would for a food dish you might be making. And the key, of course, to mulled wine is that you don't boil it. Just keep it warm so the alcohol is going to be right there for you all day long.

HOPPER: OK. Good, I'm...

MARTIN: Wishful thinking.

HOPPER: Right, right. I was going to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know what I think would be nice? If you were having an open house, to have more than one so that people could taste it. You know, I think that would be kind of nice. You could have a sweet one for, you know, people like me who are wine idiots who...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Who think Sprite is a wonderful vintage. And then you could have this version for other tastes. I think that would be a very nice thing to do. And I love your Crock-Pot idea. That's very nice.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: But of course, you need to have a designated adult so that the little people aren't sneaking into the mulled wine.

Ms. CROSSLEY: I should say that in looking at many recipes, I found that some added brown sugar, which I didn't try - I didn't know if I'd like that - and some add a quarter cup, in addition to the wine, of port or brandy. And I was thinking that might be just a little too much even for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CROSSLEY: So I didn't try that, but it might be quite delicious. So those are some of the variations that people could use. And here's a bit of a trivia for folks. If you're watching "It's A Wonderful Life," - and who isn't at this time of the year? - you can note that when Clarence the Angel comes to earth and heads to the tavern, he asks for mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and easy on the cloves.

MARTIN: Oh! I never noticed that before. So will you be making some for your holiday festivities?

Ms. CROSSLEY: I am. And I think I want to try a little - adding a little port or brandy just to see if I'd like it. Because now I'm really into mulled - now I just want to mull wine all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CROSSLEY: It's just - it's so delicious, and it's so great when it's cold outside. So it makes you feel warm and cozy.

MARTIN: Callie Crossley is the author of the wine blog, The Crushed Great Report. She's also a member of the Boston Wine Writers. She joined us from member station WGBH in Boston. Callie, thank you and Happy Holidays.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Same to you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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