Hot mulled wine, for me, is the scent of the holidays, and for years I greeted guests with a steaming mug as they stepped in from a winter's storm. But truth is, hot wine really doesn't taste all that great. Heat destroys good wine by throwing off the balance of acids, reducing a lush, velvety body into a harsh, medicinal brew.
So how did mulled wine become the beloved beverage of Christmas? It may be that the toast of Charles Dickens' "Christmas Carol" was made not with grape wine, but mead or honey wine, whose sweetness is enhanced by heat.
I first met mulled mead one subzero afternoon while snowshoeing in a dark woods at sundown. Just a sip from a friend's Thermos revived my spirits and thawed my blunted, numbed fingers and toes. Crafted by White Winter Winery of Iron River, Wis., this mead was made from a recipe that predates beer and wine, and relies on fermented honey. There are as many variations of meads as there are makers, for it is brewed everywhere there's honey, which is to say all over the world. White Winter Winery creates a wide variety of meads -- some are light, slightly dry and effervescent, others are sweetened with berries or apples, and a few, aged in oak, resemble Port.
The most classic style of mead is known as "honeymoon mead" for it was the traditional wedding gift in Chaucer's time, a beverage believed to ensure a fruitful union. White Winter makes a not-too sweet version of honeymoon mead that, when simmered with cinnamon, clove and cardamom, takes the humbug out of the holidays.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Northern Heartland Kitchen."