That sangria summer: The cliché wine cooler gets hip to pair with hot season dining
By JOHN LEHNDORFF
(This feature appears in the current issue of Cheese Connoisseur Magazine)
Sangria is not a drink you are supposed to think about for too long. Nobody does a vertical sangria tasting or takes notes about the “nose.” The traditional wine punch is the perfect background sipper, just like the bossa nova is the ideal slinky soundtrack for summer imbibing.
Poured from a sweaty glass pitcher crowded with citrus and cubes, sangria is a relief – not to mention cheap and less alcoholic, a helpful attribute on long, hot midsummer evenings. When properly composed you can taste the wine but it is mellowed by the fruit, not too sweet or too boozy, and full-bodied to hold its own with soda over ice.
Sangria, or something like it, was probably the first cocktail mixed on the North American continent. The wine-loving Vikings who settled in Vinland drank it diluted as did Columbus and the Portuguese explorers, but sangria “arrived” in American pop culture when it was served at the Spanish Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City.
Sangria took the suburbs by storm in the ‘60s and ‘70s era of backyard cookouts and beach parties and shortly thereafter was deemed un-cool among Baby Boomers because their parents drank it. Also, terrible things had happened to sangria including recipes calling for canned fruit cocktail and sangria-inspired flavored wines and wine coolers.
It would be left to their grandchildren, reared on “Mad Men,” to rediscover cocktails, bars and sangria, still one of the world’s great thirst quenchers.
The Old Man and the Sangria
Sangria has found itself at home in acclaimed eateries across the nation. At the Mediterranean-accented Rioja, a carved glass jar of fruit, wine and spirits has a prime spot on the bar. Beth Gruitch co-owns Rioja and three other Denver restaurants – Bistro Vendome, Euclid Hall and Stoic & Genuine – with chef Jennifer Jasinski, winner of the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest.
“I prefer a drier sangria style so the sweetness comes from the fruit, not the wine,” Gruitch said. In late summer fresh peaches from Colorado’s Western Slope are added to Rioja’s white sangria; a heartier red version debuts in the fall.
“White sangria makes me think about Spain in the early summer,” Adam Mali said. The executive chef at San Francisco’s Mandarin Oriental hotel takes full advantage of California’s cornucopia by adding fresh currants and golden raspberries to a white sangria poured at his signature Brasserie S&P.
“Because the flavors of white sangria are somewhat delicate, you want to match it with something light,” Mali said.
If you make too big a deal about the food “pairing” you defeat sangria’s casual raison d’etre. Earnest Hemingway wrote about sangria fare in Spain in one of his final works, “That Dangerous Summer” (1985, Scribner’s): “We drank sangria, red wine with fresh orange and lemon juice in it, served in big pitchers and ate local sausages to start with, fresh tuna, fresh prawns, and crisp fried octopus tentacles that tasted like lobster.”
Traditional Spanish tapas are a natural fit with white or red sangria. “Something like a lightly fried ham or potato croqueta with saffron aioli would balance the lightness of the wine, and, in turn, the sangria would cut the fat,” Mali said.
For a composed dish he suggested a Point Reyes fresh mozzarella with very lightly pickled green strawberries and a little agrumato, lemon-infused olive oil, that echoes the sangria flavors.
Rioja’s Beth Gruitch said that a loose libation like sangria deserves easy-to-love bites such as Marcona almonds, charcuterie and olives. For tapas, Gruitch’s first choice was “a salty tapenade with crostini.” For a less expected pairing, she liked oysters on the half shell with a quick granita like Rioja’s vanilla grapefruit vodka granita.
The right cheese for a sangria toast
“It gets real hot here in the summer so sangria is perfect,” said Danielle Sutton, co-owner with her husband, Richard Sutton, of the St. James Cheese Company in New Orleans. While Manchego is the first cheese that springs to mind when sangria is mentioned, the white and red versions are well-suited to a wide spectrum of curds. “Midnight Moon Gouda from Cypress Hill is an aged goat Gouda that would play off the fruit,” she said. In that same vein are aged Cheddars from Cabot Clothbound Cheddar and Montgomery’s Cheddar, and Idiazabal smoked sheep’s milk cheese.
One nuanced match would be with Lincolnshire Poacher Cheese, she said: “It is so good: sharp, complex, earthy and it crumbles nicely.” Her most adventurous pairing (and thus the most potentially rewarding) is Ferme de Jouvence Camembert: “This is a traditional farmhouse cheese from Normandy that‘s complex and funky. It pairs well with cider from the region that have some of the same notes as white sangria. It’s pretty stinky but really nice,” Sutton said. Along with the cheeses Sutton suggested Serrano ham and Spanish chorizo as perfect counterpoints.
Making your signature sangria
There are decent Spanish sangrias available, but buying bottled sangria seems wrong for such an egalitarian beverage. Both Gruitch and Mali said that any sangria “recipe” is really a suggestion, especially since you might add more fruit, juice, ice cubes or Cointreau during the lifespan of a single sangria batch.
Sangria is happily adjustable to what you have on hand including half empty bottles of wine aging in your refrigerator. It is not so snobby that it can’t be made with everything from hard dry cider to sake and infused spirits. Depending on the recipe sangria’s alcohol content from pleasantly light (2 to 5 percent) to something punchier (11 percent or more). Remember, even some “traditional” sangria-type recipes call for a can of Sprite. Tinto de verano is a Spanish sangria-like drink that‘s a half and half mix of red wine and soda and calimocho is a red wine and cola blend.
So whatever you do don’t use great wine to make sangria this summer. “I like sangria because it’s unpretentious and everyday and when it’s hot you can put it over ice,” Rioja’s Beth Gruitch said. After all, it would a sacrilege to serve a memorable wine on the rocks.
John Lehndorff is a Colorado-based food writer, dining critic and host of Radio Nibbles on KGNU-FM. He likes a little fresh watermelon juice in his sangria. Read his blog at: johnlehndorff.wordpress.com.
Rioja Restaurant, Denver: riojadenver.com
Brasserie S&P, San Francisco: mandarinoriental.com
St. James Cheese Co., New Orleans: stjamescheese.com
Brasserie S&P White Sangria
1 750 ml bottle dry white wine
2 white peaches, pitted and sliced thinly
1/2 cup white currants, fresh or frozen (optional)
1/2 cup honeydew melon, small cubes
1 cup Besitos Moscato
1/2 cup cointreau (if desired)
1/2 cup golden or red raspberries
Garnish: lemon wedge and mint sprig
Besitos Moscato is a lightly bubbly, moderately sweet, low alcohol Spanish wine from Valencia. Steep everything but the raspberries in a refrigerator for at least two hours or overnight. Add raspberries at the last minute and serve chilled over ice with a lemon wedge and a sprig of mint.
Rioja White Sangria
10 1/2 cups dry white wine
6 ounces triple sec
6 ounces Absolut Peach
6 ounces peach schnapps (DeKuypers)
Sliced fresh peaches, melons
Whole ripe strawberries
Dry sparkling wine or soda water
Choose an inexpensive dry white wine like pinot grigio in a good box wine like Black Box. Combine all ingredients (except strawberries, sparkling wine and garnish orange slices) in a glass container and refrigerate. Allow fruit to marinate overnight before serving. Strawberries should be added the day it will be consumed because they deteriorate quickly. Tweak to your taste. Serve over ice with a splash of dry sparkling wine or soda water and garnished with an orange slice.
Rioja Red Sangria
10 1/2 cups dry red wine
6 ounces triple sec
6 ounces brandy (Christian Brothers)
6 ounces creme de cassis (Dekuypers)
1 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
Splash pineapple juice
sliced apples, oranges
dry sparkling wine or soda water
Choose an inexpensive bottled wine like Rezzo or box dry red wine. Combine all ingredients (except sparkling wine and orange slices) in a glass container and refrigerate. Allow fruit to marinate overnight before serving. If you are looking for a sweeter version, add bit more cassis, orange juice or pineapple juice. Tweak to your taste. Serve over ice topped with a splash of dry sparkling wine or soda water and garnished with an orange slice.