Friends, the Christmas cakes led me on, this time, it's the Christmas wines. I know some of you must be wondering what spices have to do with a glass of wine served with a slice of cake during Christmas. Actually quite a lot, if you think of it. In fact a glass of wine is a perfect accompaniment to a slice of cake. And we all know that but what we are interested in is the spice content in wine.
I did some Googling on the history of Christmas wines, and found that it's not just the flavour, texture or colour of spice that makes it integral to wines. But the fact that since Christmas falls during winter, the addition of spice is meant to keep the body warm. And this is something that goes back to the Medieval Times.
In Medieval Times, several factors were responsible for the presence of spice in wine. And this was not just restricted to Christmas wines. That's because the aroma of many Indian spices like pepper and cinnamon had wafted through the seven seas during the maritime trade. The ancient civilizations knew that these spices bestowed drinkers with good health and offered medicinal benefit, apart from adding variety. Strangely, at that time, it was considered unsafe to drink water. Hence it made sense to fortify the spiced wine and drink it (often, instead of water). Wow, to think that people drank wine instead of water. Actually it's not difficult to imagine a Medieval Lord savouring a goblet of wine. In short, spiced wines represent the life and times of the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Rome, among others.
When we talk of spiced wines in the current context, one is reminded of mulled wines, usually made with red wine or sometimes fruit wines. Mulled wines too contain spices like cloves, grated nutmeg, and cinnamon or mace, many of which trace their origin to India. Though port and claret are ideal choices, generally any wine can be mulled. But what makes it unique is that these wines can be drunk hot by heating them, unlike spiced wines. Customarily these wines are served during Christmas and Halloween. Mulled wines are popular in Britain and more recently in the US.
When seen in the present scenario, the wine drinking clientele has gone beyond feudal lords. Nevertheless, the logic of using spices in Christmas wines works even today. "Cinnamon, cloves, peppercorn, green cardamom, nutmeg, star anise, orange peel freshly squeezed orange juice (bay leaves and ginger; optional) are the main spices for the Christmas wines. All these spices are used to add flavour and body to Christmas wines," said Chef Sandip Narang, Executive Chef, The Taj West End, Bangalore. The hotel is experimenting with a plum flavoured mulled wine, besides the classic offerings. "We use cinnamon, cloves, peppercorn, green cardamom, nutmeg and star anise, along with orange peel and freshly squeezed orange juice," explained Narang and added, "There is a special process for making these wines, as we have to balance between the taste and flavour, that's neither too much sweetness nor too much spiciness."
Over time, wine has become an experience to be savoured. "Shiraz or a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz Grape wines are best suited for spice flavors as the grape itself has a lot of intensity and also leaves a spicy note on the tongue," he highlighted.
I'm a wine novice but wine makers continue to experiment with spices and wine connoisseurs have learnt to pair crisp and dry wines with Indian food. Wine and spice make an interesting combo and I'm reminded of a Croatian proverb — Bread is for the body, Wine is for the soul.
I'd like to sign off on that note.