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A Short Guide to the Perfect Sangria

Vividly coloured, sticky and sweet and deliciously moreish, Sangria is the culprit and architect of many a hangover during the hot summer months – and yet it’s one of the great sunny-day beverages, loved and celebrated in many parts of the world. Sangria is a drink which is discovered by most of us during those teenage trips to Spain (or Spanish speaking countries), and if you’ve ever traveled there, or even visited an authentic tapas bar closer to home, you’ll have noticed that Sangria isn’t just one drink: it’s a template on which countless varieties are modeled.

The idea is wonderfully simple. Take some wine, a fizzy mixer, and a good handful of fruit – and voila! You have a fantastic cocktail for sharing with your friends.

Many people claim that Sangria arose as a solution of sorts to two different problems. Firstly, and most likely, it was an easy way of disguising poor quality vino – the fruit and extra ingredients certainly often hide a multitude of sins! Secondly, Sangria is said to have come about as a way of making the full-bodied, heavy and dry red wines that are synonymous with Spain more drinkable and enjoyable, when under the scorching Iberian sunshine. Indeed, Sangria is a delightfully cooling drink, perfect for lazy days on the beach, or sharing with friends on the terraces of sun-baked streetside cafes.

What do you need for a great Sangria?

The Wine

There are two approaches when selecting a wine to use as the base for your homemade Sangria. The most common approach in Spain, as well as in other parts of the world,  is one which is kind on the wallet: You use a cheap bottle of wine, and you don’t really worry about it, as the piles of fruit and sweet soda pop will cover up the harsh notes or nasty flavours of the wine more than adequately.

While there’s nothing really wrong with this, we’d encourage you to make a little bit of effort, and try to make a Sangria which you’d actually be proud to serve to your friends. As such, go for a wine you’d actually want to drink without a mixer, and then use the flavour profile of that wine as a starting point from which to choose your additional ingredients. Saying this, however you decide to approach your Sangria, this isn’t a cocktail to make with an expensive, aged bottle of wine. Spain is, after all, one of the great wine nations of the world, and there are hundreds of mid-priced, delicious red wines you can choose from for your Sangria, and you can easily find something fantastic without harming your bank balance!

Red wine is certainly the classic base, but is it compulsory for Sangria? Well, no. Travel around Spain, and you’ll come across Sangrias made with rose and white wines, too, as well as sparkling wines – but if you want to emulate that classic taste and look at home, you might as well reach for a good bottle of full-bodied Spanish red. The most authentic ones are always going to be the Spanish wines made with the wonderful Tempranillo grape varietal, or a blend which features this fruit as its main player, but you can absolutely experiment with other styles, countries and varietals.

We would recommend, however, that you stick to dry and full-bodied wine. The reason for this is due to the fact that you’re going to pile on the sweetness later in the mix, so you’re looking for complexity and balance from your wine. Steer clear of oaky, aged wines – the subtler features are going to be obliterated, so there’s little point in wasting these in this way. Fruity, young, rounded red wines are the way forward when it comes to Sangria.

The Mixer

Let’s make one thing absolutely clear: Sangria isn’t a drink for the wine purists out there. If adding fizzy pop to wine is – in your eyes – a form of heresy, then look away now. The Spanish are notoriously open to the idea of adding soft drinks to their wines. If you meander around the streets of Seville, Madrid or Barcelona, you’ll come across teenagers tipping a bottle of wine into two-litre bottles of cola, and passing it among each other as they while away the warm evening hours. Something of an acquired taste, for sure – but if you want a sickly-sweet authentic Spanish teenage drinking experience, then go right ahead!

More traditionally, Sangria is made with a simple lemonade mixer. Cloudy, bitter lemonades tend to be the most popular, as these don’t have the acrid, chemical taste of mass-produced pop.

If you fancy something a bit different, try mixing your Sangria with orange soda, or a good, botanical ginger beer. If soft drinks aren’t your cup of tea, have a go with fresh, natural fruit juices – blood orange juice is great for a real Mediterranean flavour, and grape juice and apple juice are delicious when mixed with wine. If you are using fruit juice and not soda, add a couple of splashes of sparkling water to get that class, refreshing fizzy finish.

Something a Little Stronger?

Before we get onto the garnishes, you might want to consider doing something the Spanish occasionally like to do, and chuck in a little drop of something stronger. Liqueurs and spirits (just a small quantity, mind) are often brought into the mix – it brings an extra dimension of flavour to the drink, as well as bit of boozy headiness.

If you’re going to go down this path, then be sensible and choose something which isn’t going to leave you legless. Remember, Sangria is something to be served from bowls or pitchers, and it’s easy to drink quite a lot of it without necessarily realising. Port and Sherry are lovely additions, as are fruit brandies – just make sure you let your guests know about your extra ingredients, before they start gulping it down!

The Garnish

As mentioned, the great thing about Sangria is that it is flexible and versatile. When it comes to garnishes, you can have a lot of fun – almost any citrus fruit can be added for the classic touch, but there are plenty of other garnishes to choose from. These range from the sensible – berries and mint leaves are popular – to the absurd and a little disgusting-sounding: there’s a famed bar in Cordoba which likes to serve Sangria in glasses garnished with gummy bears.

Oranges and lemons are the classic choice, and peaches, nectarines and other soft orchard fruits are logical and work very well indeed. If you feel like experimenting at this stage, now is the time to consider your base wine and the flavour profile it has. For example, if you’re using Cava or other fizzy white wines in your Sangria, you’d be sensible to avoid the citrus fruits, and opting for summer berries instead. White wine bases (especially Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc) are delicious with sliced green apple as a garnish, and if you want to bring forward to spiciness of your red wine, then why not try dropping some cloves and cinnamon sticks into the glass?

The Quantities

  • Two bottles of wine poured into a jug or pitcher
  • 500 ml of mixer
  • Two or three shots of liqueur
  • All the garnish you want!

There you have it – your guide to making the perfect Sangria for sharing with your friends and family. Bring a bit of Spanish summertime to your parties, and have fun with the mixing!

Camille is a California born and bred writer and sommelier. Dedicated to the lifelong pursuit of wine knowledge, she can usually be found with her nose in a book or pouring over maps.

2 Comments

  • April 20, 2018
    reply
    Anne-Marie Freeman

    What an informative article! I love Sangria so it’s nice to hear of options as I dread putting ‘soda’ into the wine. I’ll be trying a fruit based juice instead now.

  • April 21, 2018
    reply
    Peter

    Thanks Camille. Now I Just can’t wait for summer to begin here in Ontario.

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