There’s a widespread belief that wines used in flavored beverages like sangria and mulled wine don’t have to be high-quality, because the spices, fruits, and other additions will mask any imperfections present in the vino itself. And sure, there’s nothing stopping you from grabbing a few bottles of Two-Buck Chuck or a jug of Carlo Rossi to whip up an okay version of warm winter wassail. But why settle for “okay” mulled wine when you can make an excellent rendition by selecting a base wine that’s inherently well-suited to this purpose?
Because we at The Manual always want to pursue excellence (especially where our libations are concerned), we consulted a group of pro sommeliers to gather their recommendations for the best mulling wines.
A robust, fruit-forward red wine made from grapes grown on Italy’s Adriatic coast, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo can typically be found at a gentler price point than more high-profile Italian varietals like Barolo and Barbaresco, making it an appealing option for mulling. It’s a favorite of general manager and sommelier Lilly DeForest Campbell of The Milling Room in New York City, who tells us that “[Montepulciano d’Abruzzo] has really nice plummy notes, as well as other dark fruit flavors. It’s not too tannic or acidic, and it goes great with baking spices.” She especially recommends La Valentina “Spelt,” a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo that usually retails for about $20 per bottle.
If you’re in the market for a full-bodied Italian red wine with a nice twang of acidity, then Nero D’Avola is the varietal for you. This Sicilian specialty cooperates beautifully with food (yes, including red-sauce pasta dishes), but it’s also a dark-horse contender for “Best Mulling Wine,” according to food and beverage director Judy Velez of City Mouse and Waydown in Chicago. She gives a special shout-out to Colosi Nero d’Avola (generally retailing for $15 or less), explaining that “when looking for a wine for mulling, it’s important to keep four key points in mind: fruit-forward, full-body, high alcohol content, and cost-effective. Colosi Nero D’Avola from Sicily hits every point on that list. The fruit and full body will ensure that the [mulling] spices complement the wine rather than overpower it, and the high alcohol content makes for a base that can sustain the heat during the mulling process. Plus, cost-effective is always a win in my book!”
Alentejo Red Blends
A Portuguese region best known for red wines with strong fruit profiles, the Alentejo proves an ideal terroir to target when looking for a bottle of mulling wine. Wine director Steven Mendivil of Good Fortune in Chicago gives us some in-depth background on his personal favorite Alentejano wine for mulling, Herdade da Malhadinha Nova Monte da Peceguina Tinto (approximately $15 retail): “I affectionately refer to this wine as “Hummingbird” due to this vintage’s endearing hand-drawn label by the children of this family-owned estate winery. Consisting of an inspired blend of both indigenous Portuguese and classic red varietals, this wine offers depth and rich tannins from the Touriga Nacional & Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as great spice and ripeness from the Aragonês & Syrah, which are needed to keep the fruit components from burning off. It finishes with Alicante Bouschet, one of the few ‘teinturier’ Vitis Vinifera species of grapes, which produce red juice from the flesh without skin contact, offering the intense color and phenolic attributes that translate to a lush mouthfeel even through the cooking and accentuation of bold spices. For added depth [in my mulled wine], I love to use a splash of Metaxa, a warm and spicy Greek spirit made from Muscat grapes and a blend of Mediterranean botanicals that keeps the full flavors of the holiday season long on the palette.”
The seasonal release of the French Beaujolais Nouveau in late November always excites oenophiles (and also contributes to this lightweight red’s popularity as a wine accompaniment to Thanksgiving dinner!). And, according to sommelier Frank Kinyon of a.kitchen & a.bar in Philadelphia, this wine serves a useful purpose throughout the holiday season and into the winter as a great mulling varietal. “I recommend going with Beaujolais Nouveau for mulled wine. It’s cheap and simple, but still has some great bold fruit character and a hint of baking spice from the Gamay grape. The wine is naturally low in acidity and tannin, so you don’t have to worry about those two things affecting your recipe. I suggest buying a bottle of Nouveau from a smaller producer, like Domaine de la Madone [at $10 to $15 per bottle]. If you’re like me and go a little wild on the amount of Beaujolais Nouveau you pick up for Thanksgiving, you probably have a bottle or two still lying around for your mulled wine!” Kinyon says.
Ever seen a mulled white wine? It’s not surprising if you haven’t since red versions make up the vast majority of the mulling market. However, it’s entirely possible to apply the same principles to a white with a hint of sweetness, like a Riesling from the Nahe region of Germany. Sommelier Michael McCann of Vacillate Wine Bar in Miami likes to mull white wines of this style because “Riesling from the Nahe region of Germany is slightly sweet, but not too cloying. Once mulled with the spices, it will come together really nicely. If you’re serving to a party, it will be a welcome surprise, because [most] people have had mulled wine before, but it’s usually red. This [white option] is a nice variation.” Nahe Rieslings can be found for roughly $20 per bottle from producers like Donnhoff and Kruger-Rumpf.
“Big” red wine varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel tend to be popular picks for mulling, and wines made from Australian-grown Shiraz grapes definitely fit into this category. When making mulled wine, beverage director and sommelier Sam Mushman of the Arthouse Hotel in New York City opts for Shiraz from the Barossa Valley on Australia’s southern coast because it has a “medium to heavy body, allowing it to stand up to the other winter flavors and [the fact that it’s] heated. Shiraz is also very fruit-forward with bolder dark-fruit flavors like blackberry, plum, black currant, etc. which are the perfect complement to a mulled wine that warms you up.” Mushman particularly likes to mull Rubus Shiraz Barossa, which he says usually goes for “around $20 retail, and drinks like a $40 bottle.”
Californian “Petite Sirah” Blends
“Sirah” (also known as Syrah) and “Shiraz” wines actually come from the same grape; winemakers in the Old World (specifically, in France) use the first name, while Aussie winemakers opt for the latter. “Petite Sirah” is a rare relative of the Sirah grape, producing smaller fruit than Sirah vines (hence the name) with big dark-berry flavors and a notable undertone of spice. These vines primarily grow in California, and beverage director Patricia Grimm of Adele’s in Nashville considers Petite Sirah blends excellent options for mulled wine. “When making a mulled wine, I recommend a fruit-driven, medium-bodied wine with medium structure, and wines from the Columbia Valley and Lodi [in California] work very well,” Grimm explains. Her Petite Sirah blend of choice is Petite Petit by Michael David Wines (widely available for purchase for under $20), a wine that’s “85% Petite Sirah and 15% Petit Verdot. The notes of dark red and black fruit and vanilla soar when warmed and meld beautifully with star anise, clove, maple syrup, and orange.”
West Coast Pinot Noir
The West Coast of the United States produces exceptional Pinot Noir, and its lightweight and spice-related flavor notes render it a strong choice for mulling. Sommelier Steve Sanchez of Cucina Lupo in Carson City, Nevada reaches for a bottle of Pinot for mulling purposes because “Pinots have all the wonderful classic mulled flavors, like nutmeg, star anise, and cinnamon. In fact, I like to make a syrup with those spices and then add a little bit to the wine, which I gently warm. I finish with a touch of orange zest — I use a vegetable peeler instead of a zester — to give the drink a fresh expression that really highlights the flavors of the wine.” As for his mulling Pinot of choice, Sanchez recommends “Pinot Noir from La Pitchoune, a boutique-in-the-best-way winery based in Sonoma County.” These wines are a bit pricier at approximately $30 per bottle, but Sanchez insists that “It’s indulgent to make mulled wine with [La Pitchoune Pinot Noir], but since it’s the time of year to celebrate with family and friends, it’s worth it. “
Bartender and sommelier Michelle Hamo of Brabo Brasserie and Brabo Tasting Room in Alexandria, Virginia, also favors California Pinots when making mulled wine, and her personal preference is James Bryant Hill Pinot Noir from the Central Coast of California, which generally retails for about $15. “[James Bryant Hill Pinot Noir] is a New World Pinot, so it has lots of bright, young, and fresh fruit character with tempered acidity that lends itself well to the spice mix and fruit we add to the kettle. It is a blended bottle with 25% of the wine spending time in new French oak. This helps add to the overall flavor (vanilla and supple oak tannins) while not dominating the steamed beverage. Finally, while it is a light-bodied wine, the cherry, raspberry, and currant flavor notes provide a silky and robust quality that gives the mulled drink a well-rounded body,” Hamo tells The Manual.
Carolina Muscadine Blends
Many American vineyards plant vines that are also common in European wine regions, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. But some U.S. winemakers instead choose to focus on grapes that are native to their terroirs, and in southeastern states like South Carolina and North Carolina, the muscadine grape (and the Scuppernong grape, a variation on the muscadine) plays a major role in local viniculture. Sommelier Matt Nelling of Husk in Charleston, South Carolina appreciates the sweetness of muscadines when selecting wines for mulling, and he singles out Lowcountry Red from South Carolina’s Deep Water Vineyard (about $13 a bottle, plus shipping costs) as a top-notch wine for this use: “I would go with a Lowcountry Red from Deep Water Vineyard on Wadmalaw Island [for mulling]. They specialize in the unique grapes of South Carolina, muscadine and Scuppernong. The native grapes are a real treat of the Lowcountry, as seen at farmer’s markets throughout the summer. Their Lowcountry Red is muscadine at its finest. The robust flavor of the wine allows for plenty of room to accent and highlight with spices.”
The Malbec grape owes its heritage to the acclaimed French wine region of Bordeaux, but wine growers in South America have since taken this red varietal to new levels, with nations like Argentina releasing rich, tannic, and full-bodied Malbec vintages on an annual basis. San Francisco-based wine writer and sommelier Paige Comrie of Wine With Paige tells us that “personally, I love an Argentinian Malbec for mulled wine — with a silky mouth-feel, big full body, and earthy tones, it’s the perfect complement to the spices that are often found in mulled wine. The varietal and region also give a great price-to-quality ratio, and it’s easy to find in just about any wine shop. If you’re looking for a particular bottle, I’d recommend Norton Coleccion Malbec. At an average retail value of just $10, this bottle is a steal and easily [found] in most Trader Joe’s locations around the country. You’ll find an earthy mustiness on the nose. followed by chocolate, ripe plums, and a finish of allspice and cloves — perfect for blending into a mulled wine and curling up by the fireplace this winter!”
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