In the mid-1960s, there was only one alcoholic beverage to set out for large groups of people—partially because it was cheap to make and partially because the guests could serve themselves.
The idea came via the Spanish pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair—talk about large crowds! So the Spanish name stuck. And since it was usually made with Spain’s blood-red wines (blood being “sangre” in Spanish), the ’60s hipsters were proud to call their favorite drink sangria. More delightful still, the stuff is staging a comeback. Much has changed from then until now, however. Since sangria was originally made here using the cheapest red wine at the liquor store, it attracted very little respect from true wine connoisseurs.
Today it falls under the label of mixology, and is mixed with red wine (sometimes appropriately Spanish, like Rioja or Ribera del Duero), a diverse collection of fresh-squeezed fruit juices, and one or more flavorful spirits. Indeed, these days sangria has morphed into a craft cocktail. In Spain itself, there have long been variations on this red-dominated theme. During the consecutive “golden ages” of chardonnay and pinot grigio, a market has evolved for sangria blanca—made with white wine—perhaps even more refreshing than the red classic. A white wine with too much oak is your enemy; so seek out the crispest whites you can find—including my favorite from Spain, albarino. Because Spanish sparkling wine (called not Champagne, of course, but cava) has recently gained a following, you should give that a whirl too.
A typical sangria is made by pouring a red wine of your choice into a bowl; expanding that with a mix of orange, lemon and lime juices; and maybe adding a touch of brandy. Sangria typically has a little sweetness from sugar or honey and some fizz, achieved though seltzer water or, more likely in America, 7-Up or Sprite. The whole affair gets plenty of cubed ice to keep it cold, plus floating pieces of apple, orange and other fruit for a festive garnish.
Thanks to regulations adopted this year by the European Union, the same controls that keep people outside the French region of Champagne from selling their products under that name, now protect commercially produced sangria. Only sangria made in Spain or Portugal can be labeled as such, under this new law. Before long the EU may even force me to capitalize the S. For now, though, I’ll keep my “s” lowercase and my sangria bowl full to overflowing.