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Wine of the Week for week ending 25 June 2006
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Mulled Wine 2006
From my kitchen, New Zealand

It's been a miserable week with winter expressing its might right throughout the country. While Auckland City suffered five hours of power cuts last Monday sending the central business district and feeder roads into chaos, snow coated much of the South Island and with the weight of the snow on the power lines bringing them down, some places were without power for days. It looked like a picture postcard scene, but I'm sure for many of the residents, it wasn't. Now snow is falling in the centre of the North Island as well. It's shivery weather and really conducive to a warming tipple. So whether you are lucky enough to have just come in from skiing or boarding, whether you are a farmer that has to look after the stock in the snow or rain, or whether you are coming home from work on a freezing cold night, mulled wine is the answer. It quickly hits the spot.

One of the best things about making mulled wine is that you donít need quality wine to start with, in fact the cheaper and less quality driven the wine, the better. This, I thought, is the opportunity to taste some of the cheap wines that have been loitering in my tasting boxes, being put aside for a rainy day. The rainy day had arrived.

Having completed the task I realise why people who drink the cheaper of these wines get confused when they read a complex tasting note like the ones I usually write. My notes are full of descriptions of sight, taste and feeling. "How do you find those things in a wine," I've often been asked by social drinkers whose budget for wine is like my budget for milk. Now I understand why they donít understand the language of wine. It is because the wines they drink donít evoke the evocative descriptions. The wines they drink are just too plain. So these are the wines to brew up into a tasty, warming mulled wine treat.

It is interesting that mulled wine has its origins in medieval Europe, where spices, sugar or honey and sometimes citrus were added to 'bad' wine' to take away the off flavours and convert it into a tasty and palatable tipple. It's known by different names throughout Europe, although the German name, "GlŁhwein", is the name I was introduced to it as on the Mt Ruapehu skifields many years ago. The cook at the Ski Club would have a big saucepan of it on the brew to warm us up after the most bitter of days. However it is also known as vin chaud in France, vin brulŤ in Italy and glogg or glogi in Scandinavian countries.

Making mulled wine is reasonably easy. Take a bottle of what you think will be hearty red wine, a few whole cloves, a cinnamon stick, a cup of water, 1/2 cup of sugar and slices of lemons and orange. Place the water, sugar, citrus and spices into a large saucepan, bring to boiling point then lower the heat to simmer for five minutes, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Now add the bottle of wine and heat for 10 minutes, without boiling, to let the spicy flavours infuse. In you prepare in advance, you can easily heat the brew in the microwave for a quick fix - if you have power, of course.

This can magically convert the most horrible of wines into a tasty drink. I know, I experimented with the wine that came dead bottom of my tasting, the Corbans Homestead Cabernet Merlot 2004. The sugar, citrus and spices took the bad taste away.

So what would you buy to mull? Definitely something cheap and even something nasty. Some of the wines that I tasted, that are listed below, would definitely be of inspiration. I selected wines that retail for under $15 a bottle or equivalent in the case of the one litre bottles. Here are my notes by variety, in order of preference. However, the top wines, while cheap, cannot be considered nasty. They are definitely good enough to drink on their own.

Five Merlots - in order of preference
Merlot shone in this tasting, all, perhaps except the last one, being drinkable without mulling. However the top two wines really stood out above the others.

Wolf Blass Eaglehawk Merlot 2004 - Jammy smelling with little indication of oak but lots of plummy fruit, a mocha/chocolate nuance and a hint of mint. It's a rich, hearty wine with excellent length. Top wine of the tasting South east Australian fruit. $12.95.

Robard & Butler Merlot Cabernet 2004 - A robust juicy red flushed with smoky American oak, red fruits, soft tannins and a touch of spice. Sure to please and value at the price. From the Rapel in Chile, it shows the quality of their merlot fruit. $10.95.

Murray Ridge Merlot 2005 - With cherry jam aromas and raspberry/cherry fruit flavours, this has reasonable body with some tannin and a sweetish finish. An easy-going quaffer. $9.95.

Corbans Homestead Merlot 2005 - With depth and intensity to the colour, this has a good body with juicy red fruit, very firm tannins and a dark fruited savoury finish. A drier style. $13.95.

Timara Merlot 2005 - There's a touch of spice over earthy, mushroom flavours with hints of herbs and firm-acid fruit. It's more savoury in style with grippy tannins. $10.95.

Seven Cabernet dominant wines - in order of preference
The top two wines were definitely the best - they had a little age on them but they have possibly been in my tasting box for so long that they are probably no longer in retail. In contrast, the least two preferred wines of this set fought it out for bottom place of the whole tasting.

Banrock Station The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 - the most cabernet-like wine in the line-up, this is well-structured with smoky oak, currant and cherry fruit, a hint of tar and a minty finish. The tannins are solid and it has power and length. South east Australian fruit. $14.95.

Kelly's Revenge Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 - laced with coconut-like American oak and lots of cherry fruit, this wine has plenty of structure and flavour. Succulent tannins coat the mouth while a touch of acid carries the finish. South east Australian fruit. $12.95.

Five Flax Cabernet Merlot 2005 - a sweeter wine with cherry and blackcurrant fruit, a hint of smoky oak, medium tannins and a touch of eucalypt on the finish. There's a tarry savouriness to the lingering aftertaste. New Zealand fruit. $11.95.

Timara Cabernet Merlot 2004 - sweet oak on the nose and sweet fruit over a cherry, meaty, minty backbone. With tannins that feel like fur rubbed against the grain, this is very much in the commercial, under-$10 mould. But easy to drink if you like a sweeter style. A blend of New Zealand and Australian fruit. $10.95.

Murray Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 - a little ribena-like with cherry fruit, there is little indication of oak. It is a very simple, one-dimensional style. Australian fruit. $9.95.

Vineyards of Australia Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 - tarry, oily, savoury and smoky smelling with out any fruit at all, these odd aromas carry through to the taste. It's a dirty wine, a little like the flavour of cough syrup with a bitter/sweet earthy finish and quite unusual. Margaret River fruit. 1 litre bottle. $19.95.

Corbans Homestead Cabernet Merlot 2004 - this smells like coconut oil on a sweaty body. No itís worse. The spittoon smells better. This is a dirty wine with sawdust off the floor to provide oak flavour, only the shit on the bottom of the shoes got in too. No fruit, no wine flavour, disgusting. Hawkes Bay fruit. $13.95.

Four Shiraz - in order of preference
These wines were all clean but lacked complexity across the board

Corbans White Label Shiraz 2004 - Pepper and nutmeg, cherry and plum fruit, reasonable structure with a hint of oak, just a little sweet but there's a savoury nuance too. South east Australian fruit. $8.95.

Corbans White Label Shiraz 2005 - Light bodied, simple quaffer. This is wine that you won't be disappointed in if this is what you want, but donít expect any complexity. At least it's clean and flavoursome with berry fruit and a little spice - just as Shiraz should be. South east Australian fruit. $8.95.

Vineyards of Australia Barossa Shiraz 2004 - slightly metallic sweet oak aromas, and simple sweet chewy flavours of cherry fruit and spice with a touch of tar to add a savoury aspect to the finish. 1 litre bottle. $19.95.

Robard and Butler Shiraz 2005 - Fruitcake cherries with a touch of pepper over spicy mushrooms, this is earthy and vanillin sweet at the wine time. Clean but boring. South east Australian fruit. $10.95.

© Sue Courtney
18 June 2006

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