At our family Christmas lunches, we like to do strange themes that are just so slightly off-kilter for the season- just for the sheer heck of it. We managed to do Mexican Christmas last year, with Margaritas provided by yours truly.
This year, we decided on a (very) vaguely Mediterranean theme. I was quite perplexed as to my annual liquor contribution at first, but inspiration struck and I remembered a most excellent drink from an excursion to Catalunya (the restaurant) earlier this year. Sweet and refreshing, tart but mellow, it left quite an impression on me.
Sangria is an alcoholic fruit punch commonly served in Spain, Portugal and other Latin American Countries. Like most alcohol, it has its origins in the days of yore (I’ve been trying to use that phrase for ages!), where water was often polluted and unsafe to drink. Imagine that the same rivers that you would drink from were also used by others to wash clothes in, bathe in, and did their business in. Small wonder that people were looking for safer things to wash down their often unpalatable food ; the classical ages were pretty harsh indeed. Like most things, what people turned into alcohol depended on what was available in their particular region, since there was no such thing as air-freight.
At the same time, however, most of the wines tasted pretty awful. There’s only so much good stuff to go around, and most people couldn’t get their beverages to be even remotely palatable. That’s when some brilliant folks decided to add stuff to their wine to make it not taste like concentrated sewage. People were pretty desperate, so they used what was available- which happened to be herbs, fruit and spices (I suppose some smart chaps tried meat, but pork chop wine doesn’t sound at all appetising). This sweetened and spiced wine was called Hippocras, and it was the forerunner to Sangria.
In 200 B.C, the Romans conquered what is modern Spain, and started cultivating vines, especially ones used for making red wines, in Andalusia to feed the ever increasing demand in Rome. Thus began viniculture in Spain, which centuries later would result in the creation of Sangria. While history is murky on the details on when exactly Sangria started appearing on people’s tables, there are often two periods of time proposed; one in the 15th century, and one in the 19th century. What is known for sure is that it started getting very popular in US after the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, where a restaurateur named Alberto Heras introduced it to the American public. Nowadays, Sangria is widely available in both its native Spain and in America, North or South.
In general, there are 3 rules for Sangria:
1. You do not talk about Sangria
2. You do not talk about Sangria
3. You do not talk about Sangria
Ok, just kidding. It’s actually:
1. You use some sort of wine
2. You use some sort of fruit
3. You chill the whole mixture
That’s it. There’s really a lot you can do to customise this cocktail to your tastes. That is why I won’t specify an ingredient list. You can read about what I’ve done and there’s a summary below, but you can (and probably should) adapt the Sangria to your preferences.
Traditional Sangria is made from Tempranillo red wine from the Rioja region in Spain, which gives it its distinctive red colour and name- Sangre being Spanish for “blood”. Nowadays, few people are that particular, and use wines from all over the world- and sometimes not even red wine! New age recipes use white wine, and even champagne! I suggest you use something that’s a little drier and less fruity, as the fruit that you add later on will contribute their flavours to the final product, and there’s definitely a possibility of having too much of a good thing. I also suggest using a more affordable wine; you’re going to infuse it with so many other flavours that you don’t need to pay extra for a super complex Grand Cru . In the end though, what’s most important is that you use something that’s suited to your taste. If you don’t like the wine, you won’t like the Sangria.
A traditional recipe would use citrus fruits (abundant in Spain and the rest of the Mediterranean), and I’ve seen recipes with oranges, lemons and lime for the ultimate in Vitamin C overload. Sangria is pretty unpretentious though, and I’ve found about 30 different recipes using all sorts of different fruit. It all depends on the character of the wine you choose as the base. If you’re using traditional red wines, citrus, apple and berries work well with the deeper, fuller flavour. With many white wines, you can use nectarines, white peaches, strawberries and even kiwifruit. You might even want to go a bit nuts and try mango, passionfruit, or even watermelon. With the number of fruits you can use, it should be fun to experiment!
As you can see in the photos above, I stuck to traditional citrus and red wine. I used navel oranges (you should pick the darkest oranges you can), lime, Pacific Rose apples and some US cherries to go with the blackcurrant and cherry flavours in the Faustino Rivero Rioja Ulecia Reserva 2008 wine I picked. I used 2 each of oranges and lemons, a single apple and 12 cherries so that the fruit wouldn’t overpower the wine. You can always add a bit more if your own preferences lean towards a more fruity blend.
Once you’ve gathered all your fruit, all you have to do is slice them up so that you get as much surface area as possible exposed to the wine. Wedge and slices work well with citrus fruits, as you can see above. There’s no need to slice the cherries or currants if you want to use them; it’s just too much work. Once you’re done, put them all in a nice tall pitcher, and add one whole bottle of wine.
At this point, you’ve actually got a few choices to make. To add a bit of the actual “punch” into Sangria, you should add in a bit of brandy and some other liqueurs. With brandy, the world’s your oyster, but with citrus, some sort of Triple Sec or Cointreau (orange liqueurs) would work best. I used 100ml of Grand Marnier, an orange-flavoured cognac, and killed two birds with one stone. Some people even add Orangina or 7-up to their Sangria; that’s how unpretentious it is.
You should then mix it all up with a stirrer and then leave it in the fridge overnight. Don’t drink the Sangria right yet. Like most good things, it requires a bit of patience; the juices from the fruit haven’t had time to mix with the wine and you’re going to have a very, very disappointing wine-and-random-fruit cocktail if you start drinking right away.
There’s one final touch you can add. When serving, add a bit of tonic water into your glass right before pouring the Sangria. The result will be a fizzy, refreshing drink that’s perfect on a warm afternoon.
Ok, so just to recap what I did:
1. Pick up some wine and fruits of your choosing. I used 2 navel oranges, 2 lemons, 1 Pacific Rose apple, 12 cherries and a Rioja Tempranillo wine.
2. Cut up the fruit into wedges or slices.
3. Put the cut fruit into a pitcher and add the entire 700ml bottle of wine to it.
4. Add 100ml of Grand Marnier
5. Stir and mix the contents of the pitcher
6. Leave the Sangria overnight in the fridge
7. Mix tonic and Sangria and serve
The final product that I concocted was pretty sweet and flavourful when I served it on Christmas Day. It went well with the roast meats we were all heartily digging into. My whole family was hoping for more, but alas, you can only have so much of a good thing and I ran out. I’m eager to try something different next; perhaps a white wine Sangria would be interesting!