Where Sangria Came from and Why It’s a Symbol in Spain

History of Sangria in Spain
Delicious red and white sangrias!

Note: I originally wrote this article for a website called Vaya Madrid which, unfortunately, shut down in 2016

Each year more and more people are visiting Spain for its food. They have their Michelin guide downloaded to their iPad, have read all the most recent food blogs, and, therefore, this hungry breed of traveler knows exactly where to go for traditional experiences such as the Basque cider house, a Seville tapas crawl, or small town suckling pig.

But for every tourist who comes “in the know” there are plenty more who don’t. For many of those people it’s their first time in Spain and, despite the international reach of Spain’s top chefs, they want two things when it comes to food and drink: paella and sangria.

Sangria history Spain
A glass of sangria always looks good… but is it?

We’ll save the paella debate for another day, and skip straight to the strong stuff. Or the weak stuff if you go to the wrong place. That’s the problem with sangria– no one really seems to know what it is, or where sangria came from. If you ask a Spaniard they’re likely to associate it with a pre-made wine cooler type bottled beverage, reminiscent of the days when botellones still legally raged on into the early hours. Other Spaniards associate it with a tourist trap, an overpriced glass of wine and soda. And, more recently, there are some who have come to know it as another of the tempting cocktails offered at the city’s trendy new restaurants.

So where is all the confusion coming from? Sangria is as Spanish as bulls and flamenco, right? Well, yes and no.

For Safety’s Sake

The history of sangria is pretty straightforward. Over 2,000 years ago the Romans made their way through the Iberian Peninsula and planted vineyards along the way. As water at that time was considered unsafe for drinking, it was common to fortify it with alcohol to kill off any bacteria. The first sangrias (whose name comes from sangre, or blood, and refers to its dark color) were likely heavily watered down mixes of wine, water, and herbs and spices. They’d add anything to kill off the bacteria in the water and to disguise the terrible table wine.

Most food historians agree that some version of sangria was introduced to the Americas in the early 1800s. Official accounts place the US introduction to sangria at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, when it was served to visitors of the Pavilion of Spain from the Taberna Madrid kiosk. Since then Americans have been quick to embrace the Spanish cocktail, and in recent years many bars serve a signature sangria to their guests.

Sangria in today’s Spain

The easiest way to think of modern day sangria is as a wine punch, often involving fruit and other alcohols. But it is important to note that there is no standard recipe here in Spain, and that the complex and delicious sangria you might be expecting could likely lead to disappointment.
While cocktail culture has flourished in the US and other countries, the Spanish cocktail scene still lags behind. And although Madrid has some great cocktail joints nowadays, this wasn’t always the case. So as every corner restaurant in the US is serving up specialties like white wine passionfruit mango sangria or spiced sparkling strawberry sangria, Spain is still stuck in a rut.

traditional Spanish Sangria recipe
Traditional Spanish sangria is a bit boring…

Establishments know that tourists expect sangria, so you’d better bet they’ll serve something by that name. But more often than not, you’re getting charged for a much cheaper, (and very popular) Spanish drink called tinto de verano. Tinto de verano is simply red wine, ice, and either lemon soda or casera (artificially sweetened soda water). In many Madrid restaurants the barman adds a splash of vermouth and a couple of slices of orange, then charges double for their “house sangria”.

My advice for drinking sangria

In the majority of restaurants your best bet is definitely sticking to the tinto de verano. But don’t turn your nose at sangria right away– there are some places that make some really nice versions. Ask about the ingredients to avoid surprises.

Remember that, despite its name, not all sangria is made with red wine. There are versions throughout Spain using white wine, cava, and even cider. Sangria can have anywhere from 4-12% alcohol content, so drink with caution!

Best cava sangria recipe
Delicious cava sangria! Photo by Chris Potako on flickr CC

Making sangria at home is easy, fun and delicious. Perfect for parties, there are some great sangria recipes to discover. Some of my favorite sangria recipes are:

Opening up a small sangria bar in Madrid serving creative and delicious well-made sangrias would surely be a recipe for success. Just an idea!

What’s your favorite sangria recipe? Have you had good sangria in Spain?

Comments

  1. Hola love the recipes you share. I hope to travel to spain next summer .definitely will be in Madrid any restaurant suggestions?

  2. We traveled to Spain this past October and loved every minute! So much so that we are considering moving. Anyway, we had read the “only tourists drink sangria” thought process before going and at first adhered to it. But we diverted from it our first night when at a restaurant in Segovia, the table next to us got the most lovely looking pitcher of sangria and we ordered some. Oh boy were we glad we did. I have obsessively dreamed of this sangria since returning. I recently figured out how to make something so similar that we can’t tell the difference. That evening kicked off a 10 day trip of sangria drinking, where we got some that were delightful and some that were not. I still would encourage anyone traveling to Spain to get the sangria, if that’s what you want to do. You may likely find something delightful, like we did. And if not, who cares! It’s not like you cant get a bad drink in the US as well. Tinto de verano is also very yummy and much cheaper. But it is not as good as a great sangria and you’ll never know if a place has a great one, if you dont order it. Unless you luck out like we did on our first night and get sat next to the unsuspecting tourists now turned your own personal sangria Guinea pig!

  3. Me encanta ‘tinto de verano’ I love tinto de verano. I discovered it when i was in Spain several years ago. It is unpretentious and refreshing as well. The Spaniards use any reputable ‘vino tinto’ red dry table wine, usually local, as it’s cheaper. i recall being able to go into many local bars and fill up your ‘demijohn’ you brought from home for your weeks drinking wine. Anyway, in Madrid the local wine might be vino de Madrid or Mentrida. In Barcelona it might be Tarragona tinta and Valencia Jumillas, basically the local red wines I like to make mine with less wine and more club soda as it can make you tipsy if you drink too much. if made with less wine and more soda, you can drink more and not get woozy due to the alcohol and the heat of the afternoon. Salud!

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