Christmas Food & Drink: Spice up your life

Winter warmers or winter wannabes? Our panel mulls over kits for the perfect seasonal drink
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The Independent Culture
WHETHER or not the snow is lying deep and crisp and even, there is always enough nip in the air at this time of year to suggest a warm, soothing glass of mulled wine. Infusing wine with spices creates the perfect winter brew, and a kit provides a quick alternative to home-made recipes.


It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it. Our hearty panellists, full of early Christmas spirit, included Ronnie Elen, Anthony Palmer, Corinna Poole and Amy Mason. Vanessa Wilson, who regularly makes up her own mulled wines, joined in to cast a practised eye over the commercial offerings. Together they set about sorting the winter warmers from the winter wannabes.


Panellists were asked to test six kits in search of perfect Christmas cheer in a glass. They looked for good strength and blend of spices, rich, full flavours, evocative aromas and festive and attractive packaging. Each kit was prepared with the same wine so they could be compared directly. Experts recommend that mulled wine be made in an aluminium pan, and that it never be allowed to boil. Some also suggest that the mixture should be diluted slightly.


pounds 4.95 for 6 bundles

Simple green-and-red cardboard packaging was considered to be the most attractive feature of the Bay Tree kit. "It's classic, and you could definitely have this on show," said Amy Mason. However, despite aesthetic promise and six well-made muslin spice bags, a weak, barely-there taste failed to impress testers. Vanessa Wilson liked the range of ingredients, but thought them too subtle, and Amy Mason felt that this mild mixture would not have much impact on wine. As the only kit to contain sugar in its ingredients, testers hoped, to no avail, that the Bay Tree would lack the initial sharpness experienced with other kits. But bitterness persisted even after the addition of extra sugar. Only Corinna Poole found its basic flavour good, but agreed that it was nothing special. Panellists decided that while this kit is pretty, it fails to deliver.


pounds 6.99 for small ceramic pot

The most intricate of all the kits, this ensemble came in a terracotta pot, with cinnamon sticks, star anise, nutmeg and citrus fruit slices. Despite such attention to detail, testers were not impressed by the presentation, which Vanessa Wilson thought "a bit Body Shop". More charitably, Corinna Poole decided that the dish could be reused as an ashtray if all else failed. Vanessa Wilson and Anthony Palmer initially took against the distinct aftertaste, but after a period of cooling all the testers revised their opinions and decided this had a smooth, mellow taste once the spices had had time to infuse the wine properly. To get the full flavour, though, a lot of extra sugar was needed. Final tasting concluded that this kit creates a pleasing, if unexciting mulled wine, which is more an acquired taste than a soothing winter favourite.


pounds 1.99 for 4 pouches

The testers were disappointed by this insipid brew - Amy Mason compared the taste to herbal tea. A recommended brewing time of 15 minutes was extended to try to improve the flavour, but it didn't help. "Any longer and you'd boil away all the alcohol, so there's no point persevering," decided Anthony Palmer. The flavour that came through was considered mildly pleasing, and most testers did report that the more they drank, the better it tasted. "The flavour doesn't hit you immediately, you just kind of get used to it," said Ronnie Elen. Amy Mason complained of the strange addition of pimento, which made her nose sting when she sniffed the bags. The "own-brand" appearance of the packaging did not improve Sainsbury's chances of being our Christmas number one: "Uninspired," sniffed Vanessa Wilson. "Practical, but not a present," agreed Amy Mason, although Anthony Palmer thought this was probably good for anyone on a budget. The overall verdict was that this is a middle- market kit for those who don't like their mulled wine with too much character.


pounds 2.50 for 4 pouches

"I didn't know you could mull white wine. I'm intrigued," said Amy Mason, speaking for most of the panel when presented with a kit sold specifically for this purpose. "For those who dare to be different," said Anthony Palmer. Both he and Corinna Poole approved of the addition of fruit juices to the mulling and thought the mix of citrus and cinnamon a refreshing alternative. However, Amy Mason could not see any difference in the mix of spices for red and white wine, as both comprise of cloves, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg, and thought the addition of fruit juice the only novelty. Instructions for the Harrods Fruit Cup say that it should be served cold, but in the spirit of warming winter drinks the panel tasted both hot and cold. "It's like a warm Bucks Fizz," exclaimed Vanessa Wilson. The only tester who didn't take to the Fruit Cup was Amy Mason, who found it bitter, and complained that fruit juice spoiled the taste of the wine.

Cold, the Fruit Cup was judged less exciting and more like generic fruit punch. Reactions to the packaging were muted, and most testers found it unsuitable for a gift. "Boring packaging - is it By Appointment?" wondered Anthony Palmer. However, the final words went to Ronnie Elen, sampling the Fruit Cup as her sixth and last test bottle. "Words fail me. Please call me a cab immediately."


pounds 2.95 for 4 pouches

This glamorous-looking red bag containing four spice pouches won over everyone on the panel for being so festive and luxurious. "Lovely, lavish packaging, just what you want at Christmas," enthused Vanessa Wilson. "Imperious. Buy this one if keen to impress," agreed Anthony Palmer. The unbleached muslin bags were well made, and although testers were disappointed that the kit did not contain more of them, the results did not disappoint: "Wonderful smell, and the spices really pack a punch," said Vanessa Wilson, while Amy Mason thought that this had a true mulled wine aroma. Fortnum & Mason advises the addition of water and in the interests of fairness testers made two batches; one with added water and the other without. All agreed that the undiluted sample had the better flavour, described by Anthony Palmer, Ronnie Elen and Corinna Poole as "extremely moreish". "I could drink this all evening," said Vanessa Wilson. Anthony Palmer toasted the Fortnum & Mason kit for creating "the perfect mulled wine".


pounds 2.95 for 10 sachets

Tradition and convenience are blended in this Culpeper mulled wine kit, with spice "tea-bags" (in impressively copious numbers) replacing the usual muslin bags. The packaging was described as "distinctive" by Anthony Palmer, who thought the envelope would be easy to post. A tempting, potent smell pleased the testers with its interesting blend of spices - Corinna Poole thought she detected cardamom. Vanessa Wilson, however, thought they gave off an aroma of spicy PG Tips, which put her off the idea of giving them as a present. Despite such curiosities, the kit produced a drink universally agreed to be richly flavoured. "Delicious!" exclaimed Corinna Poole and Vanessa Wilson. Anthony Palmer was convinced that it would appeal to all palates. The wine improves in taste as it cools, attaining perfect spiciness after five minutes, according to Amy Mason. Although mixed reactions about the appearance of its packaging prevented this kit from sweeping the board, the panel placed it as our forerunner in the test for those who favour content over style.


Fortnum & Mason order line, 0845 300 1707; Harrods Fruit Cup from Harrods wine department (0171 730 1234); Bay Tree Traditional Mulled Wine Bundles from Selfridges (0171 629 1234) and Harvey Nichols Food Hall (0171 235 5000); Lomer Spiced Mulled Wine Bundles from Selfridges; Culpeper enquiries and order line, 01223 894 054; Sainsbury's Infusion Pouches available from most Sainsbury's stores.