Every summer, without fail, that first blisteringly hot and sticky Maryland afternoon, all I want is a pitcher of sangria.
I know. Don’t freak out, even I’ve had to learn to embrace this habit wholeheartedly (unlike my affection for tequila, which I normally keep on the down low). Critics and hard-core wine snobs may declare it a bastardization of wine itself, but when it comes right down to it, heavy red wine is not pleasurable to drink on a 95+ degree day. It just isn’t. And the goal of the perfect party drink is to deliver a pleasurable (and often alcohol-rich) experience to the consumer, is it not? So while sangria may possess little finesse, there certainly is much enjoyment and that’s what I’m usually after. So let’s break this down two ways, one classic red sangria and one for those who, like me, are abstaining from alcohol this summer and must make do traipsing up and down the stairs to the basement to get ice out of the only freezer we have, a habit that will become increasingly precarious as I grow in girth courtesy of this pregnancy.
Sangria breaks down to a simple formula: wine, fruit, booze, and some kind of sweetener if you so desire. Don’t over think it, remember that what you’re trying to provide is, in fact, the best party beverage ever, and should therefore induce pleasure not only from that frosty, fruit-filled glass, but also in the process of its creation. So take a deep breath. Enjoy.
My recipe begins with a bottle of straightforward, easy-to-love, inexpensive Spanish wine, something like a really ripe Garnacha or an unoaked, fresh Tempranillo, both really juicy and fruity wines that are totally enjoyable on their own but won’t break our hearts to doctor. Spanish wine is a no-brainer here and packs a serious punch for the money.
For our Virgin Sangria, our wine alternative will have to be something with equal punch that echoes some of what wine naturally possesses, including good balance and loads of flavor. And since I like the deep black cherry flavor I find in many of those Spanish wines but I still want something with a little grip and tannin, I’m going to combine about two thirds of a cup of black cherry juice with two cups of pomegranate juice for good measure. On it’s own, it’s tart and assertive and really rich, but there are plenty of ingredients still to come!
Here we can combine our Classic and Virgin forces because the goal is the same: put fruit in the wine that will both take on and impart flavor to our final mixture. Typically, I set up two camps: Citrus and Everything Else. In the citrus camp, I leave an open invitation to anything in that family that looks appealing, but usually settle on an orange, a lemon, and one or two limes cut into pinwheels or wedges, depending on what you want it to look like. For Everything Else, the goal is usually to aim for a fruit that holds its shape and doesn’t lose its integrity after being soaked in essentially an acid for a day or so. Berries, because they’re more absorbent and delicate, tend to become mush by the time you get to serving them, so I’ll usually muddle and strain them before adding them to the mixture, thus becoming more of a syrup than an actual fruit floating around in there. I’d stay away from banana, but go with a seasonal fruit you love and it should work wonderfully. I usually choose a crisp, tart apple like a Honey Crisp, Fuji, or Granny Smith because they absorb the flavor of the wine (or juice) nicely and keep their shape and texture.
All that beautiful fruit ends up being soaked in our third ingredient, booze, or given our Virginal circumstances, some kind of syrup. The question of which booze is a matter of personal preference, but among the most popular choices are brandy, rum, and citrus-flavored liquors. Brandy is a spirit made from distilled wine and is available in simple and inexpensive versions all the way up to astoundingly complex and prestigious. For our purposes, the simple one is just fine. The same goes for rum, and I typically avoid dark or spiced rums for this purpose and go straight for the clear stuff. Citrus-flavored liqueurs like Curaçao or Triple Sec are perfect for accentuating the natural citrus flavors you already have with the lemons, limes, and oranges.
For our classic sangria, we’ll toss the Everything Else fruit in one container and add about a quarter cup of brandy or rum (or both! It’s a party!) and our citrus in another and add the Triple Sec. Into the fridge they’ll go for anywhere from an hour to overnight until we’re ready to combine our final punch.
For our Virgin sangria, our approach is a little different. Booze brings a certain amount of flavor concentration and a little bit of a punch in the face to the mixture, which means our alcohol-free version has to do the same thing. So, to make sure we have a concentrated flavor for our fruit to absorb as well as a little zing, we’ll reduce about a cup of apple juice with a little bit of a cocktail mixer called Bitter Lemon, which is actually a combination of lemon and tonic water, and a cinnamon stick. We let it simmer for about a half an hour, cool to room temperature, and soak all of our fruit in that for a few hours.
All together now!
The last step is easy: combine. In goes the wine or juice, then come all the fruit and the deliciousness you soaked them in and stir to combine everything. Give it a taste to make sure the sweetness suits you, and if it’s too tart, try adding a half0cup of orange juice or some simple syrup until it’s just right. Serve in whatever vessel is available and top with about a third of a cup of club soda or sparkling wine, depending on the severity of your celebration.
Sangria is simple, endlessly variable, and the prettiest thing in a glass, not to mention an easy party go-to and people-pleaser. Change the color! Change your fruit! Make a white mojito sangria with Sauvignon Blanc, green grapes, lime, mint, and white rum. Or a rosé sangria with basil, macerated berries, and frozen watermelon “ice cubes.” My summer sangria craving will have to take a virgin twist, courtesy of this baby-on-board, but don’t think that’ll stop me.
Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.
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