Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris on December 21, 2016 0 Comments As the days grow shorter, and the cold weather begins to spiral its way down from the frozen north, people gather together in the dark to make the most of what they have, and look hopefully towards the new year. Winter is a time of resourcefulness, but also a time of taking pleasure in the simple things, the small things. For thousands of years, the days and weeks before the winter solstice — the shortest, darkest day of the year — have been a time of feasting and merriment, and opportunity to share some smiles and congratulate each other on making it through the toughest times, while getting ready for the return of the sunshine, the warmth and the new life that it brings. The winter solstice was of particular importance in Europe for millennia, particularly in central and Eastern Europe. There, the mid-winter is especially cold and harsh, and survival depends on the quality of the harvest that just passed. This time of year was also key in the calendar of the cultures formed around the Mediterranean, the cradle of civilization, where any opportunity to add a deity or legend to a date was taken and ran with. Given the drinking preferences of these parts of Europe, it comes as no surprise to discover that wine played a key role in many winter traditions, and continues to do so today. Of course, the pagan past of the civilized world has faded considerably, and we now mostly celebrate Christmas in place of the midwinter solstice and yuletide that preceded it. However, what would Christmas be without wine? Indeed, what would winter as a season be without wine? As the mercury plummets, we need the elixir of the vine more than at any other time of year, and it seems it’s always been this way. The white wines of summer start disappearing from the wine racks, and deep, dark and warming reds start taking their place all across the northern hemisphere. Here’s a brief rundown of some international winter wine traditions for you to try, and some suggestions for ways to bring a bit of Old World wonder to your Christmas and winter wine drinking. Wassailing The Wassail is a tradition most commonly associated with cider country — specifically, the south west of England, where hard cider outstrips the sale of beer and wine by a considerable margin, but it is also practiced in the vineyards across much of central France, most of Central Europe and in some of the regions of Eastern Europe where the Celts made their influence felt. What is Wassailing? Essentially, it’s a ritual wherein the farmers and villagers gather together to noisily ask the spirits of the vines and trees to bear a good harvest the following Autumn. This usually involves everyone getting together in early January, and celebrating with plenty of music, dancing, burning tapers…and of course, lots and lots of booze. In some parts of France, they still make offerings of bread soaked in wine, which are presented to the oldest or largest vines by the young women of the village. Does it work? Who knows. Is it a fun way to spend a dark winter evening? Most definitely. Hot Wine, Four Ways If you travel almost anywhere in Europe in the winter time, you’re sure to catch the scent of warmed wine, spiked with spices and sugar, and steaming from cups held in gloved hands as you wander through the pretty Christmas markets that pop up each year. Mulled wine, as it’s known in English, is certainly one of my favorite things about winter, and it’s become so popular that nowadays you’ll be able to buy it, ladled into a mug, at most pubs. Further proof of its growing popularity is that today, most supermarkets will sell little parcels of ‘mulling spice’ for you to take home and make this sweet, festive treat yourself. However, mulled wine is not a uniform thing, and each country will have its own variation on this winter specialty. In the UK, it’s always red wine, sweetened with white sugar and flavored with orange peel, cloves and a stick of cinnamon, but there are some fascinating alternatives out there, including: In Hungary, mulled wine, or forralt bor, is almost always made with that country’s marvelous sweet white wine, which is further sweetened with honey and spiced up with whole peppercorns. In Germany and Austria, people drink glühwein, which is traditionally sharpened with fresh orange juice, and bolstered with a fair amount of rum. The Swedish possibly do it best of all — you really need a decent pick-me-up halfway through a Swedish winter, believe me — and their wonderfully named Glogg includes booze soaked raisins and almonds, shots of port and brandy, Muscatel, cardamom and plenty of other spices. What a combination! Flaming Wine The Germans have never shied away from a spectacle involving alcohol (as anyone who has ever stepped into a Munich beer hall during Oktoberfest can attest) and the ‘flaming wine’ tradition, usually saved for Christmas day or Christmas parties, is no exception. This involves the host of the party making a large batch of hot wine — either traditional glühwein or something a little more exotic — and placing a rum-drenched cone of sugar on top of it. The sugar is then set alight, and brought into the party to an eruption of cheering and singing. As the guests gather around the beautiful, flickering blue flame, the wine is spooned into glasses and enjoyed for its warming properties. The British Approach While mulled wine, mulled cider and even mulled ale are currently very much in fashion in the UK (the British will mull anything, it seems), the classic English wintertime drink actually comes from slightly warmer climes. Head to almost any household in the UK during the weeks around Christmas, and you’ll be offered a glass of fortified wine — most commonly, Port or Sherry. This is remarkable for the fact that most households (my mother’s included) wouldn’t even dream of drinking either Port or Sherry at any other time of the year. For some reason, it’s only ever brought out in December, which is bizarre given how wonderful these particular wines can be. However, on reflection, this reserving of these rather delicious wines makes quite a bit of sense. Both of these fortified wines, from sunny Spain and Portugal, actually have all of the spice and sweetness we associate with Christmas. They’re syrupy and sweet, and bursting with complex, deep flavors which range from berries and vanilla, to caramel, cinnamon and bitter chocolate. Furthermore, they bring a beautiful warming sensation to the drinker thanks to the grape spirit which bolsters the blended wines they are made from. For me personally, a glass of good, 20 year old Port and a Christmas cheese selection is my idea of heaven. What Happens Down Under Of course, mid December is the hottest time of the year for half the world. The Australians actually make a big deal out of their wine drinking at Christmas time — this is the time of year to get out those crisp, fruity Australian white wines, and serve them nice and cold alongside a barbecue with your friends. I recently even heard of an Australian bar selling wine popsicles during the Christmas holidays — it’s not for me, but who am I to judge how you drink your wine in the middle of blistering Australian summer? Whatever you end up doing this winter, make sure you wrap up warm, spend some quality time with your loved ones, and bring a good bottle of well chosen wine. There’s no better way to show your thanks and love to those who deserve it the most.