Sangria: Spain’s Ingenious Wine Punch
The purposeful plucking of guitar strings filled with earnest emotion. An April sun that is so bright and warm that it pulls on one’s thirst as if it were the height of July in most places. And village streets that can overwhelm one with its scents of chorizo, garlicky shrimp and roasting meats. Ah, my senses are so looking forward to this overload as I prepare for a weeklong trip to Andalucia, Spain. What can I say? I am thinking about Spain’s beautiful rioja wines, complex sherries and sangria that just seems to celebrate life with its bright refreshment.
Every Tuesday is sangria night at The Cellar Door in Downers Grove, and they know that sangria transforms ordinary get-togethers into fun, festive fiestas. It’s true. Lucky for me, I will get to survey sangria and tapas in the part of Spain where both apparently originate. In honor of that upcoming excursion, I thought it would only be fitting to write about sangria.
Sangria’s supposed history
One of the problems of researching a drink so embedded in a culture is that information gets passed around much like children play that “telephone” party game. Thankfully, a book, Sangria: Fun and Festive Recipes, is available to set the record straight. According to author Mittie Helmich, the first recorded sangria is attributed to Romans who lived in Andalusia, the Spain’s southern coast, around 300 B.C., and who cooled themselves off with a nice little wine drink made from a young red wine, steeped with fresh local fruit and magnified by regional spices and other personalized flair.
But here is where it’s hard to distinguish fact from lore. Most say the word sangria comes from the Spanish word for blood, sangre, in a nod to the red wine used to make this drink. However, according to Helmich, lexicographers have hypothesized a Sanskrit derivation: sakkari means “sugared wine.” Whatever the case, Americans reportedly didn’t get a good taste of sangria until it was introduced at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City.
The right way to make sangria
As best as I can tell (having yet to talk to the “locals), there are only three rules to sangria.
1. Sangria must contain wine.
2. Sangria must contain fruit.
3. Sangria must be refreshingly chilled.
After those rules, it would seem almost anything goes. Although we think of sangria as a light red wine drink, sangria blanca employs white wine or even Spain’s wonderful sparkling wine, cava. Sangria fruits generally include apples, pears and citrus, but it’s clear that the Spanish focus on locally grown produce when making sangria. When plums, melons or peaches are in season, in sangria they go. In more tropical locales, one may see mango or pineapple or other local produce. The goal is to keep it fresh, using only the best fruit.
So, after the fruit and the wine, the craziness really begins. Some fortify their sangria with liqueurs or liquor. Others add fizzy mineral water to give it a little bounce. Spices, again generally of local origin, customize and regionalize sangria. According to Helmich, Mediterranean Spain’s concoctions utilize peaches, apricots, melons, cherries, grapes, oranges and pears from Barcelona and Valencia while tapping Catalonia’s cava or the ever-abundant riojas. However, in Andalusia, where Moors had a strong foothold, the sangrias may blend in sherry (it’s local, afterall), saffron, figs and dates with dry white wines, sweet Muscat or reds from Valdepeñas.
But the original American sangria, served in the 1964 World’s Fair Spanish Pavilion was introduced by Alberto Heras, who opened a tony restaurant on New York’s Park Avenue after his great success at the World’s Fair. Thanks to Jane and Michael Stern and their great book, American Gourmet, the recipe is presented for all to use and fiesta-ize their next dinner party or gathering:
1964 World’s Fair Sangria
1 bottle red Spanish wine
2 tbsp. sugar
1 lemon, cut into slices
½ orange, cut into slices
1 ounce Spanish brandy
1 ounce Cointreau
2 cups ice cubes
1 cup cold club soda
An hour before serving, pour wine into a large pitcher. Add sugar and mix well. Stir in lemon and orange slices, brandy and Cointreau. Chill until ready to serve. Just before serving, add ice cubes and club soda, stirring just enough to chill very well.
Obviously, there’s not a whole lot of fruit in this recipe, so like the Spanish, one is always free to extemporaneously deviate with more or different fruit and other choices for fortification. While the Sterns recommend you drink this sangria strained from its ice and fruit a la World’s Fair style, many other sangria lovers say, it’s up to you. Bottomline, the drink should be fresh, fruity and a whole lot of fun. Salud!