Updated: Dec 28, 2020
Nothing says a German Christmas quite like that first sip of warming Glühwein (literally "glow wine", known more commonly as mulled wine in the UK) from the local Weihnachtsmarkt… Okay, so things might be looking a little differently in the absence of the usual Christmas market gatherings this year, but this by no means diminishes the value of such an iconic tipple. As the cold weather and long nights begin to set in, and with all of us spending an inordinate amount of time inside, there has never been a better occasion to start dabbling in some homemade Glühwein recipes, many of which can be found online, if you're not fortunate enough to already have some German culinary expertise to hand.
The typical mulling process. Photo: Jens Mahnke via Pexels
Imbued with all the heady nostalgia of the cosy winter evenings from what now feels like a bygone era, Glühwein is for many the marker of the Christmas countdown, with a rich history to its name. It is believed that what we now call Glühwein existed in some form or another as far back as Roman times. One such variant was the so-called “conditum paradoxum”, found in a collection of ancient recipes by Roman foodie Marcus Gavius Apicius, after whom the writings are named. It is there we read of sugar and spices being added to this early wine melange, most likely for the sake of preserving the drink for as long as possible, as well as improving its taste.
Nevertheless, it was not just for celebratory purposes that flavoured wines earned their reputation. Whilst the earliest German records of what we now recognise as the modern Glühwein go back to 15th century Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen, the first grower of Riesling grapes, medieval documentation from around the same period also testifies to a similar – albeit less appealing – variation by the name of Kräuterwein (literally 'wine flavoured with herbs'), which was supposedly used medicinally as a remedy for chest and stomach pains.
Pop across the Ostsee to Sweden and you are likely to encounter Glühwein’s Scandinavian brother, Gløgg, which is reported to share German roots too. Indeed, it was said that King Gustav I of Sweden (1496-1560) was particularly partial to an aromatic cocktail of honey, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and Rhenvin (“Rhine Wine”), which was most likely discovered thanks to his wife, German noblewoman Katharina von Sachsen-Lauenburg.
However, as any Brit will tell you, the influence of Glühwein is by no means limited to Swedish soil. Christmas markets all over the UK have been selling this German staple for decades now, either as the Anglophone variant “mulled wine”, or under its original European name. Whilst many Brits may also have to resort to more homemade versions this year, it will take more than a global pandemic to shake the legacy and tradition of this revered spiced beverage.
A traditional Glühwein stand at a Christmas market. Photo: VH-Halle via Wikimedia Commons
So whether you are enjoying Christmas on the continent, or back home on UK soil, let us all raise a glass of Glühwein this December to a rich and heady history… Prost!