The origin of Sangria? Who knows? Here’s my story. A long time ago, the Spanish had a problem: what alcoholic beverage to drink when it is really warm out? Beer wasn’t their alcohol of choice in the first place; neither were distilled spirits. What Spain does have though is wine, especially red wine. Drinking red wine on a hot day does nothing to cool you down, it just gets you drunk. Putting ice cubes in red wine is an offense against the laws of nature (or some such reasoning). What if you put fruit in with the wine and let them stew together, and then add ice? Sangria!
You don’t want to use your good wine, but you don’t want something terrible either. A wine that is relatively light bodied and fruity is called for. (Light on the tannins please!) Tempranillo or Garnacha (Grenache), the primary red varietals in Spain, work well in their less expensive incarnations. Working with California varietals, I like Zinfandel or even Merlot for the Sangria base.
As far as what else goes in the Sangria, there are undoubtedly thousands of different recipes: different fruits, additional alcohol (brandy, liqueurs), sparkling water or lemon-lime soda even. White wine Sangrias are also pretty darn good.
On our recent trip to New England and Puerto Rico, I ended up having a lot of Sangria. It was served at the wedding we attended in New Hampshire, and then with the heat in Puerto Rico, something was a necessity. As I’m not a huge fan of rum, and rum is the major alcohol of Puerto Rico, I needed something else to drink, and there was my long lost and newly rediscovered friend, Sangria.
As far as I can count, I had Sangria at six different places in Puerto Rico, almost every night. I’ll blame it on the sunset colors reminding me of Sangria. I missed the first night because I had one of the Puerto Rican beers; didn’t make that mistake again. And I missed the last night because we were doing a nighttime snorkeling trip in a bioluminescent bay and got back to the hotel too tired to drink. (By the way, the bioluminescent bay swim was one of the coolest things ever. Swimming and your hand trails strands of light in the water. Magic. Belief in a higher being. More than just science. Do it if you ever get a chance.)
The danger with Sangria is that it can easily get too sweet. The wine you’re starting with typically isn’t going to have a lot of acid, and you’re adding fruit and potentially other components that have some sugar. I encountered this quite often. It was still good, but not great. The two best from the trip were at Aji Dulce, a restaurant in Old San Juan, and at the Tamboo Tavern, a bar/restaurant right on the beach in Rincón (Sandy Beach). Both were nicely balanced takes on Sangria, and earned a second glass.
I’ve talked before about rosés as great for warm weather, and now I’ll keep Sangria on that same list.