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.
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.
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!
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?