There is such a wide variety of cocktails and aperitifs you can enjoy on a hot summer day while sitting on a patio with friends. From the classic gin and tonic to the rum based mojito or simply sudsy beer, there seems to be a drink for everyone’s palate that can help quench the thirst of the mid-day sun.
One of those quintessential summer classics is the wine based Sangria from Spain and Portugal. A mix of wine, fresh fruit, a sweetener of sorts usually consisting of either orange juice, honey or simple syrup, and a dash of brandy, this citrus strong cocktail can be made for one or poured high in a punch bowl for your next backyard barbecue. It’s versatile in the sense you can mix and match ingredients and very inexpensive to make in comparison to many other cocktails.
History of Sangria
What many people don’t realize is that Sangria is just a variation of a wine based punch that’s been served across the whole of Europe for centuries. As far back as the middle ages, men and women could be found drinking a wine-based cocktail known as Hippocras which was a homemade wine infused with cinnamon, ginger, pepper and other spices popular in the era. Aside from adding flavor to a fairly rudimentary wine, the reason for additional spice was so the punch could be altered based on the time of day, the meal served or the individual’s palate. Since water wasn’t safe to consume and milk was strictly considered a beverage for infants, Hippocras became the internationally popular drink, consumed by all once they passed infancy and were around the age of two or three. It wasn’t a matter of wanting to intoxicate the youth, but it was simply due to the fact that alcohol was the only safe beverage of the time, since the alcohol would kill off much of the bacteria found in other liquids. This was yet another reason for giving the wine an enhanced flavor. Since the wine was often so harsh in those times, in order to encourage toddlers and children to drink it, parents and guardians would add fruits, spices and many other ingredients to the wine the same as we add chocolate syrup to milk or put berries in our breakfast cereal.
Known widely as Claret Cup Punch throughout much of the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, it used a fantastic blend of cabernet franc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon that today is commonly known as Bordeaux wine or Claret. Once the wine was produced, or procured, brandy and fresh fruits from the vine would be added for additional flavor. The drink famously associated with almost all Jane Austen heroines, Claret Cup Punch was as common a sight at parties as bagels and lox are at brunch in my home.
Years later, as the Romans invaded Spain around 200 BC, vineyards were planted as the shipping industry began to prosper throughout much of the country. Since the Romans were so fond of the incredibly juicy red grapes, wine began to find its way into Rome and the name Sangria was born. What really ended up differentiating Sangria from Claret Cup Punch was the style of wine used as a basis for this most delicious and refreshing cocktail. While Claret or Bourdeaux was used in other regions, the Sangria producers in Spain opted for their very different Rioja wine as the primary ingredient.
Soon, the Sangria business exploded with popularity and new variations of the punch were quickly developed. Sangria Blanco was made using white wines and Cava was created with various sparkling wines from the region. The popularity grew and soon Southern Spain was making a new product called Zurra using fresh peaches and nectarines. The legendary punch continued to grow and finally became a global phenomenon when it crossed the border into western civilization and was introduced just a short time ago at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.
Since Americans were thought to have inferior palates by much of the world, and representatives from Spain were certain their bush-league tastes wouldn’t be capable of enjoying stronger drinks, they opted to serve Sangria to the guests of the World’s Fair in an effort not only to showcase some of Spain’s most treasured developments, but so that women or men with sensitive palates wouldn’t be given a distaste for Spanish wines and liquors.
It was an immediate success and Sangria gripped the world over. Now equally popular in North America as it is in Spain, Sangria has really developed quite an incredible following with many restaurants claiming their own proprietary recipes and blends using everything from additional juices and sodas to odd spices and random liqueurs.
Today, Sangria has undergone some new developments. As of January of this year, pre made punches labeled and sold as “Sangria” can only be imported from Spain and Portugal under the European Parliament enacted new wine labeling laws and restrictive regulations. Of course, when it comes to homemade Sangria that isn’t pre made, you can really opt to name it whatever you like since it’s unlikely the Liquor Police will ever come knocking at your door.
Sangria, as mentioned, is most commonly made from red wine, fruit juices, a sweetener and either a small amount of brandy, or sometimes soda such as seltzer water, lemon lime soda (7up or Sprite) or another carbonated beverage.
Despite pre-packaged Sangria being prominent in most liquor stores, I would strongly encourage you to create your own. That really is the fun of Sangria and it’s intended purpose. Of course there is a traditional recipe which means using a Rioja wine, but almost any wine can successfully serve as the main ingredient in your homemade punch.
Regardless of what recipe you choose to follow or create, my advice is to try and make the Sangria in advance, ideally the day before you plan to enjoy it, so that it was time to chill and marry overnight. Then, a few hours before you intend to consume it, add the punch to a pitcher filled with ice cubes and garnish it with fresh fruits.
Sangria is quite literally one of the most versatile drinks in the world. Of course you could completely screw it up, but anyone with a taste buds should be able to figure out what will appeal to their palate and what would ruin it.
Wine. It can be red, white, sparkling, rose, or a mixture. It doesn’t really matter, but I would choose a quality red wine if this is your first experience.
Sweetener. Orange juice is usually my favorite, but anything sweet will work. I’ve used pineapple juice, simple syrup, honey, and of course, being from Canada, maple syrup.
Mix. Traditionally, you really don’t need a mix and could just use a small amount of brandy (to taste). I wouldn’t recommend anything extravagant like a premium cognac or armagnac, but instead would focus on a middle of the road or budget-friendly brandy. The options are really endless and even a nice fruity brandy would work well. Other options, aside from brandy or a secondary alcohol would include seltzer water, tonic water, lemon lime soda, etc. You don’t need very much, and please note this is something to add in at the very end, not the night before, as the carbonation will dissipate rather quickly. One neat option is something like Orangina.
Fruit. Again, this is left up to your imagination. I typically prefer citrus fruits such as lemons, limes and oranges. I’ll usually throw in some fresh cherries and pineapple as well, but you could use almost any kind of fruit. The only fruit I’m not a huge fan of in Sangria is bananas as they tend to just go mushy. Some of my recommended fruits include fresh berries such as blackberries, raspberries and blue berries, especially in white wine or sparkling wine Sangrias. Melon works well too, as does kiwi, apples and mango. While some fruit can be added in advance, one tip I use is to remove that fruit and replace it with fresh fruits right before serving. This way I still get the married flavors of the fruit, but without the stained appearance. Fresh herbs and spices are another thing you could add. Mint leaves, basil, spices such as cinnamon, ginger or pepper works well too.
Sangria, as I think I’ve competently explained, really has no rules. However, most “aficionados” suggest drinking it out of a wine glass. I have, however, seen it served in everything from a collins glass to an old fashioned glass.
The only actual tip I will recommend when it comes to serving is that you either use a large punch bowl with a ladle or you serve it in a pinch lipped pitcher. The reason behind this is that since Sangria is usually stocked with fruit and ice, by using a pitcher with a pinched lip, you prevent the fruit or ice from dropping into the glass as you pour, saving your shirt and the surrounding area from being splashed with red wine.
Often, Sangria will be served with a wooden spoon which aides in scooping fruit out to add to your glass. It’s generally a wise idea to make the Sangria in a 1-litre pitcher or punch bowl as it allows an entire bottle of wine to be used, with just enough room for the add-ins. Of course, for larger crowds, you’ll require larger quantities and one bottle of wine may not be enough. My personal preference when serving Sangria to a crowd is to use a large punch bowl rather than pitchers. It prevents spillage and also permits a certain ease when serving it.
Of course, as previously stated, I never recommend buying pre made Sangria. It’s not that it tastes bad, in fact, there are several producers who make some very tasty products. However, it really does take the fun out of the drink. Now, that’s not to suggest I never buy pre made Sangria. If I happen to be in a big rush, it’s a last minute desire or I’m heading to the cabin for the weekend, the bottled punch can be quite convenient, and in some cases, just as good as the fresh batch you’d make at home.
What’s rather important to note, is that as of January 2014, unless it’s an official product that’s imported from Spain or Portugal, the bottle or box will no longer be legally permitted to have the “Sangria” label on it. Instead, these punches will be called “Aromatized Wine” among other various names. Some producers, however, have continued to advertise their product as “Sangria Style”, attempting to utilize loopholes in the legislation in an effort to increase, or rather, prevent the loss of sales due to the name change regulation. Of course, this isn’t to say that all producers are required to abide by this legislation. Since it’s ‘technically’ only European law, other countries outside the EU would have the ability to place their own requirements on the producers that sell product in their regions. It’s the same as how divorce is illegal in The Vatican and the Philippines but those laws don’t translate to the rest of the world. Similarly, the laws governing Sangria by the EU administrators don’t necessarily translate in to other regions. It then becomes the responsibility of those other geographical locations to decide whether or not to honor that law. Most countries do however.
When it comes to buying these pre made punches, there are a wide variety to choose from. Most liquor marts will have a specific aisle or section dedicated to aromatized wines and the staff should, in most cases, be well versed on what’s popular and what isn’t. Many liquor stores actually require a certain quota be sold or else it will be removed from the shelves. This often helps to ensure only quality products continue to be sold in your community. The problem however, exists in the same way that McDonalds and Budweiser are popular. Just because they’re popular, doesn’t mean they’re good.
It’s versatile, flavorful and refreshing. In the summer you can’t ask for much more than that. Sangria is the perfect alcoholic beverage for large crowds with various palates and preferences, summer barbecues and relaxing on the patio at the beach. Traditionally, Sangria is red wine based, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best. In fact, while I absolutely prefer red wine to white in most cases, when it comes to Sangria I’ve enjoyed many Sangria Blanco’ just as much as the traditional mix. Tip: Get creative. Use inexpensive wines until you perfect your recipe and even try a few variations at the same time. It never hurts to have more than one punch bowl at your next backyard bash. As always, I’d love to hear about your favorite recipes and tips in the comments section below. Stay tuned for our next spirits guide where we’ll focus on something a little more potent.