Winter Warmers: Top Wines & Fortified Drinks to Sip in Front of the Fire

By | Wine Writer & Educator
Last Updated: October 23, 2023
Discover a range of Winter Drinks that range from bourban-aged red wines to versions of fortified, dessert and mulled wines to try during the Winter Season. Plus, learn how to make your own Mulled Wine with our recipe and some additional recommendations for drinks to enjoy by the fire.

One of my favorite parts about winter is exploring a range of wine beverages I like to think of as “sip while in front of a roaring fire” drinks. These are sometimes a little sweeter, maybe a little boozier, and perfect for warming you up on a cold night. While you can definitely enjoy these beverages throughout the year, there is something fun about having a range of drinks that are unique to a season. 

What’s also nice about these alcohol-based treats, is that you can often find them (or make them) at a range of price points and from a variety of different regions. So whether you’re a proponent of drinking local or searching for an international flavor, there’s something for everyone out there. 

Fortified Wine

Fortified wine means either grape spirit or brandy has been added to a base wine mid-fermentation. The addition of these higher alcohol liquids causes fermentation to stop, allowing the sweetness of the wine to remain higher. Depending on style, they may be aged in oak barrels for a varying number of years, and can be made from either white or red grapes.

Fortified wine can include classics like Port, Sherry, and Madeira, but the same process can be done on any wine and is used throughout the world in creative ways. 

I’ll just state my bias from the beginning by saying that Port gives me the warm and fuzzies, both in the metaphorical and literal sense. Its richly intense raisin and baking spice flavors make it perfect for winter. Kind of like all the delicious flavors of an oatmeal cookie tucked into a boozy treat. But I’m also a fan of exploring other Port-styles and fortified wines out there, particularly when I’m traveling. 

If you’re looking to explore beyond the classics, check out these or see if you can find something similar wherever you adventure next: 

Terra D’Oro Zinfandel Port: Made from Zinfandel grapes, this California take on Port is all dark chocolate and dark berries. It’s a rich, sweet, but still zingy dessert-style wine that is an interesting variation, especially for Zin lovers. 

Weis Vineyards One Eighty Three Dessert Wine: This Port-style dessert wine comes from the Finger Lakes and is made from Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. With notes of prune and dried figs and a nutty aftertaste, it is a fun Finger Lakes take on the classic. This is my personal favorite Port! 

Chateau Grand Traverse Cherry Reserve “Port”: From Traverse City, Michigan — the cherry capital of the world — comes this fun take on Port. They produce a cherry wine, age it in small oak barrels for four years and then add cherry brandy. It’s like a cherry pie in a glass. 

Living Roots Golden Wattle Muscat: Coming from Australia and made in the style of classic Rutherglen Muscat, this golden-colored fortified wine has incredible notes of apricot, hazelnut, and coffee. It’s a brighter and lighter fortified wine that still packs a punch.

Bourbon Barrel Aged Red Wine

In an age where craft brewers are using every type of barrel in the world to produce fascinating beers, it should come as no surprise that winemakers may be exploring other barrel options as well. Since 2014, bourbon barrels have been a popular way of increasing rich flavors in bold red wines. These barrels help to add notes of char and smoke that aren’t possible to get from other types of oak. 

Interestingly, they almost taste like a fortified wine with their dense rich dark fruit notes, nutty flavors and smokiness. They also tend to be slightly higher alcohol. If you’re a red wine lover and a whiskey lover, this is a fun alternative for slow sipping on a chilly night. It’s even suggested by some brands like Cooper & Thief that you enjoy these wines out of a rocks glass much like you would sip a bourbon.

Many large brands from California, including Fetzer, Mondavi, and Terlato have bourbon barrel aged options. Cooper & Thief is dedicated to this style of production, so they are fairly easy to find in your local wine shop. 

There has been some debate about these styles of wines — are they simply a marketing gimmick? Are they masking flaws of substandard wine? Maybe, but if that were to be the case it doesn’t necessarily mean that the wines aren’t enjoyable. I’ll admit that I was skeptical about bourbon-barrel aged wines, but as I’ve been sampling them more and more at local wineries, I’ve found some that I really enjoy and that strike a great balance between fantastic wine and bourbon flavors. 

If you’re interested in warming up this way for winter and exploring this style of wine, here are some fun options to try: 

Robert Mondavi Bourbon Barrel-Aged Cabernet Sauvignon: One of the larger brand name options out there, this one routinely gets top marks for balancing the flavors or wine and bourbon. It has loads of dark berries with smooth vanilla and a caramel mouthfeel, plus well-integrated tannin. 

Three Brothers Winery Stoney Lonesome Estate Bourbon Barbera: Aged for over a year in bourbon casks, this wine from the Finger Lakes is a fantastic example of a local winery interpreting a trend and making it better. It is nutty, spicy and cherry delicious, making it perfect for winter.  

Bodacious Bourbon Barrel Aged Red Blend: Coming from British Columbia, this winery’s take on bourbon barrel aging has a balance between smooth and spicy, making it perfect for food pairing.

Mulled Wine

I love the tradition of mulled wine in the wintertime. The smell alone is enough to make me think of the holiday season, with the scent of clove, cinnamon and orange filling the air. Mulled wine is something that is utterly simple to make, but seems impressive because people so rarely make it on their own. This is a winter warmer that is perfect for sharing with family and friends.

Here’s how you make mulled wine:

Put a large pot or dutch oven on the stove

Add one bottle of wine on medium heat: don’t use an expensive bottle, any basic red (or white if you’re feeling sassy) will do. I personally like to pick a red blend with a slightly lower tannin, maybe one with a hint of sweetness in it already so I don’t need to add more sugar. 

Add one orange: You’ll want to slice an orange and add it to the wine. If you are not a fan of bitter notes, you may want to peel the orange before slicing and adding. If you like the orange flavor, add another orange (or just save it to make pretty garnishes for glasses). 

Add mulling spices to taste: You can buy a pre-made mix of spices, or make your own using cinnamon sticks, whole clove, whole star anise and cardamon pods. Star anise and cinnamon sticks in particular also make great garnishes! 

Add sweetener to taste: You can add whatever type of sweetener you prefer, about 2-4 tablespoons, including honey, maple syrup or plain sugar. 

Bonus, add liqueur: If you’re really in the mood to warm up, you can also add a quarter cup of brandy, bourbon, or cognac.  

What I love most of all is how you can really tailor mulled wine to your own taste. For example, I like mine a little less sweet, but with loads of spices in it. Our family and friends have also done a variation where we added a little bit of orange blossom honey mead to the batch to enhance the acidity and make it a little more citrus-forward. 

Now it’s your turn to share! What’s your favorite winter warmer? Have you found a great local bourbon barrel aged wine? Any secrets to the perfect mulled wine? Let us know in the comments!

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