Publisher: Wine Spectator
Date Published: June 30, 2017
Author: Jack Bettridge
The 1964 New York City World’s Fair was alluring enough for my Midwestern cousins to drive east and join my family for a visit. Despite featuring the Unisphere – a symbol of global interdependence – the exposition’s attractions split our clans along gender and age lines. The kids wanted to brave the Log Flume ride. The teenage boys craned their necks for the Ford Mustang debut. The ladies headed for the Crystal Palace of Fashion. But for my uncle, the Spanish Pavilion was the draw. He’d heard it was serving a refreshing new drink – sangria – that was predicted to conquer the cocktail world.
It turns out my farmer uncle wasn’t just a hick; he was on to something. As well as showing off El Grecos, Goyas and Picassos, Spain wanted to highlight the quality of its wine. One surprise hit was the sangria introduced by the restaurant supervisor Alberto Heras, who stayed in the U.S. after the fair to sell even more at his own establishment, which he named the Spanish Pavilion.
Word of this refreshing, fruity sparkling wine punch with a brandy kick soon got out, and it quickly became a sensation in barrooms and at patio parties across the nation. Because it could be mixed ahead of time, hosts found that it was a convenient way to serve a multitude in hot weather. Before long, sorry was the summer shindig that didn’t serve sangria. Alas, the craze didn’t last, mostly because quality control dropped altogether as the drink’s popularity grew. Practitioners degraded the sangria with cheap and leftover wine and omitted key ingredients, such as Spanish brandy and Cointreau.
But we may be encountering a renaissance. “Just like anything else, it’s come full circle,” says Rick Di Virgilio, owner and chef of Houston’s Oporto Fooding House & Wine. The restaurant’s high-standard sangria program is successful enough to go through two to three pony kegs a week. Beyond honoring the basic structure of the drink, there’s a lot of room for play. Ricky Febres, brand manager of the premium Spanish brandy Cardenal Mendoza, whose company also sells the rebottled sangria Reál, says that even in Spain, sangrias vary from town to town and from bar to bar.
The wine may be whatever is regionally available; a range of fruit juices are typically added; and club soda is often swapped out in favor of the local equivalent of 7Up. Pineapples, peaches and strawberries join typical citrus fruits floating in the mix. And now there’s even white sangria – something of a contradiction in terms, since the name is commonly believed to come from the Spanish sangre, meaning “blood,” a reference to the beverage’s red color. Once you leave Iberia (Portugal has its own sangria tradition), the drink becomes even more amorphous, Wine ceases to he native to the region. If they’re added at all, spirits such rum, Cognac, gin, and even vodka might replace locally made brandy or Port.
Rather than define sangria by what is or isn’t in it, perhaps it’s best to discuss what it shouldn’t lack. Small portions of spirit and liqueur are needed to supply heft. By tradition, that means Spanish brandy and the orange-flavored liqueur triple sec; you don’t have much of a punch with just wine supplying the alcohol. When you buy off-the-shelf “sangria” to save time and effort, it’s not the whole package. But it’s a start. Just be sure to doctor it with something harder. Purists may want something made with Spanish wine, such as the aforementioned Reál, which features Tempranillo and Garnacha and offers subtle fruit flavors. Another option is the much more orange-forward Beso del Sol.
But wirh no regulation of the category, bottled sangrias may come from anywhere, including Australia and California. Some, like California’s organic Eppa, name their fruits right on the label (pomegranate, blueberry, blood orange and açaí). Despite having a name you might dismiss as lightweight, Swizzle is rather hearty and comes in two different flavors, pomegranate and blueberry, with fool-pairing suggestions for each.
Oporto’s Di Virgilio boosts the drink up a few notches with an insistence on high quality and novel ingredients. His white sangria contains ginger syrup, uses the elderflclwer-flavored St. Germain as a liqueur and gets its fizz from sparkling wine. His red version contains a house-made clove syrup and whole cane sugar. Fruits are organic, and as the restaurant’s name suggests, tawny Port is used in place of the more typical brandy.
One more key to the success of the Oporto product, says Di Virgilio, is consistency. For that he starts the process 48 hours ahead of serving rime, which allows the flavors to meld. The drink is kept refrigerated and then strained before the addition of fresh fruit garnishes (but no ice) when it is served.
Given that sort of detail, some of Di Virgilio’s sangrias may have over-achieved if the goal was simply to come full circle. The original World’s Fair recipe seems rather quaint by comparison. Nevertheless, it made a believer of my uncle and an experimenter out of me.