‘Geiler Stoff’: Glühwein – your German Mulled Wine Guide

You are ready for a trip to German christmas markets? Looking forward ginger bread, Thuringian sausages, and Germany’s hot and spicy answer to Sangria – Glühwein [Gleew-wine]?

christmas market

Glühwein is amongst the must-have-at-least-once treats at German Christmas markets. It is hot, sweet, tasty – and possibly more caloric than a Thuringian Sausage and a chocolate covered ginger bread combined. We Germans love it: About 50 million liters of mulled wine are consumed at Christmas markets in Germany each year. My personal relationship to it is one of love and hate, though.

The thing with Glühwein is its diminishing marginal enjoyability…. the first cup tastes great, the second is good, the third one is just ok… a fourth one, really?….Even if it is a great Gluehwein, with a good balance of sweetness and acidity, and great aromas from fruit and spice, the second cup never tastes as good as the first one – it’s a bit of an opposite experience to wine drinking, I’d reckon.  When it comes to Glühwein I am better off sticking to one cup or two – anecdotal evidence has it that I am not the only one.

Back at the Christmas market: Given we have only a couple of shots to take – how to find the best Glühwein amongst the trizillion vendors offering some? Mind you, many vendors take shortcuts by heating up the contents of half-a-euro-liter packs – well assuming that sweet and hot will well cover up its low quality. If it’s just red, cloying, and sticky, you probably just got one of those.

So, here you are now, taking a tour of the Christmas market and wondering how to find good Glühwein and how to avoid industrial concoctions heated-up in the back of a stall?

It’s helpful to first get an understanding of what makes a good Glühwein. Since there is little complexity in the process (mix, heat it up gently, let soak, serve), it comes down to the blend of ingredients – good ones only. The base is a fruity, but not sweet, red wine: a pinot noir, valpolicella, merlot, dornfelder… low in tannins, not wooded. Add spices such as piment, cinnamon, anise, cardamom, cloves, and some fruit, typically sliced orange. Bring to a low simmer, sweeten to taste. Done. That’s a solid Gluehwein. The art starts from here with different types sweeteners, spirits, fruits and spices being part of top-secret house recipes.

Now, the thing with bulk produced Gluehwein is: for beverages above 1.2% alcohol there is no law requesting an ingredients list. That means open doors for the cheapest possible ingredients – stuff you would normally not want to drink.

This is why our happy Gluehwein-experience will start by asking about its ingredients. A good vendor might reveal all his super-secrets, but certainly will be happy to let us know which base wine he is using. If we get a shrug in response, we better move on. Some wineries at Christmas markets in Mainz and Wiesbaden have their own stalls – we normally won’t go wrong with theirs, they have a reputation to maintain.

While you are at it, try some different versions: based on white wine, alcohol free, or with a cider (in Frankfurt!) for base. Check out ‘heisser hugo’ [haissar-hoogo’], based on white wine, syrup of elderflower, mint and lime. Wine city Mainz offers one of the largest ratios of booze related stands, take a tour there.

Keep in mind that too much hot alcohol might hit you in the head like a frozen ski boot. If you liked your Glühwein, go for more, but hold your horses. Drop a casual ‘Geiler Stoff’ [gai-lar sht-off] when you go for your next cup one and you’ll be guaranteed some laughter.

Enjoy your tour!