Last year, I was lucky enough to spend this week in Vienna, Austria, for my day job. During the evenings, I braved the December cold to visit the city’s Christmas markets. My goal was to explore the city’s food, enjoy the holiday spirit, and drink as much glühwein and punsch as I could. And of course, to collect as many holiday glühwein mugs as possible. This year, the mugs take me back to Vienna in spirit. Though I may just have to cook me up some goulash.
When I got home, I wrote this column about the glühwein tradition in Austria, published on washingtonpost.com on December 17, 2016:
This is the season for celebration, when we raise our glasses to toast friends and family and welcome the new year. Most of us will splurge on a bottle of champagne, or several bottles of moderately priced sparkling wine, to fuel our festivities. Perhaps an expensive bottle of burgundy or a Napa cabernet sauvignon will grace our holiday tables.
Yes, wine is for special occasions, celebrations of life’s finer moments, and therefore worth the expense. Yet on a recent visit to Vienna, Austria, I was reminded that, stripped of its pretensions, wine is about everyday community, fellowship and warmth. I was in Vienna for business, but spent my free time combing the city’s various Christmas markets for gifts and of course glühwein.
Glühwein is mulled wine, red or white, infused with spices and citrus and warmed to just below boiling point. The name translates from German as “glow wine,” referring perhaps to the glow we achieve when we drink it on a frigid evening. We become infused with its warmth, and the chill and cares of the day seem to melt away with every sip.
At the Christmas markets that spring up in various neighborhoods of Vienna during the Advent season, the first and last booths one sees sell glühwein and various punches, based on apple, orange, or a popular version flavored with berries. There is almost always a “turbo punsch,” spiked with rum or another liquor, as well as non-alcoholic “kinderpunsch” for consumers under age 16. Each market has one or more styles of ceramic mugs available for a modest deposit. Collecting these mugs is a great tourist sport that requires consuming lots of glühwein.
Viennese young and old congregate near these booths, sipping glühwein or punsch and chowing down on cheese-infused bratwurst or goulash soup in a bread bowl. It’s a scene repeated at Christmas markets throughout Austria and Germany. If you’re lucky, you might find a stall selling a type of pastry made of sweet dough wrapped around a spindle and baked, then dusted with cinnamon and sugar. It seems so simple, yet it’s wickedly delicious – so delicious I forgot to write down its name, but it’s Hungarian, hard to spell and harder to pronounce.
Some of the markets have a specific theme. The Karlsplatz market near Karlskirche cathedral featured advent-related art, while the smaller Am Hof market near Vienna’s old Jewish quarter emphasized wine, liqueurs and the porkiest display of ham a food lover would ever want to drool over. (Thanks to a colleague taking me to Am Hof, I can report that 2016 appears of first blush to be an excellent year for Grüner Veltliner.) The city’s largest and most touristy market, at the Rathaus, or town hall, included a skating rink and Christmas displays similar to those back here in the States.
For me the common theme is glühwein. I can shrug off the commercialism and ignore the stalls that sell the same products at each market, as long as I have colleagues and friends to enjoy the wine with and the occasional chocolate marzipan cake pop dusted in cocoa to resemble a potato. (The Viennese love their kartoffel, even if they aren’t really potatoes!)
Back in the Middle Ages, mulling wine with spices was a way of preserving and improving wine as the months wore on between harvests and the wine, drawn on demand from barrels, oxidized rapidly. Today’s mulled wine may be a holiday novelty, but it’s also a common tipple at private parties in Austria.
Glühwein is available in stores in large bottles or even kegs, according to Dietmar Zöscher, food and beverage manager at Vienna’s venerable Hotel Bristol, which sponsors a small Christmas market dedicated to gourmet food products. Are these store-bought versions any good, I asked him?
“I don’t know,” he said, with the sardonic grin of a wine lover asked to comment on the cheapest jug wine. “I’ve never tried them.” But he described how he makes glühwein for his family and friends.
“You want Austrian wine, of course,” Zöscher said. Take two bottles of young, fruity zweigelt or blaüfrankisch – many markets today offer white glühwein, but red is traditional – and add an orange and a lemon, sliced up, plus some cloves, star anise and a cinnamon stick. Warm this delicious concoction on low heat for an hour, being careful not to let it boil, then strain out the spices and fruit and add sugar to taste. There you have it, your own glühwein. Zöscher adds raisins to the mix of spices to contribute sweetness and reduce the need for added sugar.
When the next polar vortex makes the mercury vanish from our thermometers, or snowmageddon forces us to shovel our driveways until we can no longer feel our fingers or toes, let one family member remain inside to make glühwein. As you clasp the mug, you’ll feel the warmth spread from your hands to your throat, then from your stomach to your toes, your heart and your smile.