Saving Sangria

Make it right and you’ll refute this noble drink’s barfy reputation

by John Cameron

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Doing research for an article on sangria is pretty illuminating. One of the first things you learn is that there are people out there who are afraid of sangria because they associate the term with a syrupy-sweet wine-flavoured beverage. Subsequently, they probably associate it with puking or making really bad decisions with their genitals.

Take Oregon-based cocktail historian Jeffrey Morgenthaler, for example, recounting a Tex-Mex party he brought sangria to: “Every single person in attendance was recoiling in horror at the thought of having to choke down a big heaping glass of red syrup.”

Eric Asimov, writing for the New York Times on May 20, talks of “wine lovers who have reached middle age” associating sangria with “memories not altogether pleasant,” of being served wine “oversweetened with sugar and cheap liqueur” or sangria made from “rotgut that is too stale to be served by the glass.”

If you’re one of those folks, here’s the good news: you were never served a proper sangria, and there’s still time to change that.

If you’re going to mess around with red wine in summer, a proper sangria is the way to do it. Fruity, boozy, spicy and complex, a well-made sangria is supremely refreshing proof that the Spanish know how to deal with a hot summer day (not to mention how to punch up an otherwise boring vino).

But for a mixed drink with such a long history to it — sangria has been the Spanish name for wine punches pretty much since the Romans planted vineyards there — you won’t find many sangria purists. Being a stickler is beside the point: the fun in sangria is figuring out your favourite combination of fruits and wines, figuring out how to pair certain sangrias with certain types of food, and figuring out how to get your friends bombed on the stuff.

Even the basic structure of the drink depends on the person making it. The only constants are wine, fruit and some kind of sweetener. From there, it’s sort of up in the air. Some recipes call for brandy, while others call for soda water. Some people decide that ambiguity is for suckers and top their brandy-dosed sangria with soda water. Some people decide sugar isn’t enough to use as a sweetener and bolster it with orange juice.

All of this stuff is fair game, and if anyone tells you otherwise they’re not to be trusted; Spain is a big country where sangria differs from region to region and restaurant to restaurant — and besides, it’s your sangria, and they don’t have to drink it if they don’t wanna. So it’s up to you to figure out what you want out of a sangria. If you’re looking for something with little alcohol content, for example, omit the brandy, or replace it with a fruit liqueur that complements the notes in the wine you’re serving. Or if you prefer rum over brandy (in a white wine sangria, this is perfect), do that.

But do avoid lemon-lime soda, even if a recipe you find calls for it; your sangria will end up tasting cloying and artificial, like the wine equivalent of Kool-Aid. And pick a mid-range wine; a Royal Red sangria will taste like you skimped on the wine, but a wine over $20 or so a bottle will prove to be nothing more than a waste of decent wine.

Those are rough guidelines, but there are some other valuable tips to be had too. For a richer fruit flavour, marinate fruit in sugar and hard liquor for at least one hour (and up to four) before adding wine. For a zestier citrus flavour, steep citrus peels in a small handful of sugar for two hours and use the resulting citrus oil syrup (oleo saccharum — literally, sweetened oil) as part of your sweetener. Use vodka instead of brandy if your recipe is sweet, or sub in a port or sherry (or a vermouth, if you’re feeling gutsy) to amplify the wine’s presence. If you’re looking to add spice to your sangria, pop in a cinnamon stick or a couple of allspice berries.

If you’re looking to get really out-there, get herbaceous or floral. Lemongrass in red wine sangria, white wine and peach sangria finished with a sprig of rosemary, strawberry and rosé sangria topped with dry elderflower soda, or a few drops of orange flower water replacing the whole cup of orange juice you’ll find in so many recipes. Hell, even just dash in some Angostura bitters and call it a day, if you feel like it; it’s not like the rich, spicy notes of bitters don’t fit with the flavour profile of a wine from Rioja.

In the end, that’s the really beautiful thing about sangria — the only things limiting it are your imagination, your tastebuds and the season. Best to stretch the former two and take advantage of the latter. And best to do it with a porch full of friends.

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BASIC SANGRIA

1 750mL bottle red wine (find something Spanish, from the Rioja region)

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup brandy

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup fresh orange juice

Add everything to a pitcher and stir it. Top it with fresh fruit and refrigerate. Serve over ice. That’s all there is to it.

2013-07-11

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