Raising a toast with Sangria

Updated: Nov 20 2005, 06:33am hrs
Think of European wines and straightaway French and Italian wines are on top of the mind for most people. Few people know that for years, Spain has been a world class producer of wines both in quality and quantity. In fact, it has more area under viticulture than any other country in the world. Some of the better known Spanish wines are the quality reds from Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions and the whites from the Penedis and Rueda wine regions.

Spain also produces a fine white sparkling wine known as Cava. Like France and Italy, Spain has come up with the DO (Denomination of Origin) System, which is a quality control system guaranteeing the origin and class of grapes as well as the methods used to produce these wines. Each bottle of wine is labelled with the name of the area from where the grapes are grown.

However, like all wine producing countries, Spain also has its share of some drinkable but largely undistinguishable wines. This is probably due to the fact that a large percentage of Spanish vineyards cultivate the Airen grape variety and not one of the popular varieties like the Tempranillo. So, the Spanish created a few ways to spruce it up with fruit, honey, sugar, spices and additional alcohol. It serves two simple purposes. It hides the taste of sub-par wines and gives these wines more kick.

Sangria (san-GREE-ah) is a very popular wine-based drink in Spain. The beverage is usually made from red wine, fruit juices, soda water, fruit and sometimes liqueurs and/or brandy. The name, refers to the colour of the wine used. Sangrias are traditional strong red wines with purplish highlights, often found in coastal areas and similar to the colour of blood (sangre in Spanish means blood).

The ingredients in Sangria vary, particularly in the type of fruit used, the kind of spirits added, if any, and the presence or lack of carbonation thus allowing you to customise the recipe according to your personal preferences.

Almost all Sangrias have these ingredients in common: wine, fruit, sweetener and spirits. Traditionally, Sangria is primarily made of red wine, though in the US, white Sangria (called Sangria Blanco) is almost as common. In southern Spain, Sangria is called Zurra and is made with peaches or nectarines while in the Penedes region near Barcelona, they use their sparkling Cava to make Sangria. Mexico is the other country where the tradition of drinking Sangria started in colonial times. As part of the Mexican cultural heritage, today Sangria is one of the drinks of choice for any occasion and even non-alcoholic Sangrias are available in the market so that the whole family can enjoy.

In the US, Sangria was first tasted at the Worlds Fair in New York in 1964. When this fruity wine punch was served, it suddenly became a fashion drink. Of late the consumption of Sangria in the US has dropped, which may be more a reflection of major improvements in Californian wine. To make Sangria successfully, its crucial to allow time for fruit flavours to blend with the rest of the ingredients. The preparation is simple and consists of cutting the fruit in thin slices or small cubes, then mixing all ingredients except for ice and any carbonated sodas in advance, preferably overnight. The soda, ice and any garnishes are added just before the drinks are served.

When making your own Sangria, use good quality red wine. For classic red Sangria, use a Rioja or Tempranillo wine. A Pinot Noir is also a good choice, but make sure the wine is not too tannic. For white Sangria, try a crisp, dry white wine like a Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio. For the fruit, it is the best to go with your personal tastes. But you may consider the flavours in the wine and try to complement them.

In Spain, Sangria is often served in one-litre jars, large enough to hold a bottle of wine plus added ingredients. In informal social gatherings, Sangria is usually served like punch, or poured from a pitcher.

Sangria is a versatile party beverage and goes well with snacks such as fried shrimps, calamari rings and even cheese and biscuits. Depending on your menu, you can make your Sangria with red, white or even rose wine. Choose something you like since you and your guests are going to be the ones drinking it!