Step up your sangria this summer | Drink | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Step up your sangria this summer

It’s more than a dumping ground for leftover wine


At many bars, the sangria pitcher is a dumping ground for past-prime ingredients. Have some wine that’s been open a bit too long, or orange slices left over from last night? Add some sugar and booze, and those former waste products turn into a tidy $9 cocktail.

Though it may sound shameless, this approach fits with the history of sangria. For centuries, inventive drinkers have been devising ways to salvage wine that’s cheap, oxidized or otherwise unpalatable. Sangria is simply Spain’s way of jazzing up humdrum wine.

But sangria needn’t be a limp, sickly sweet concoction guzzled at chain restaurants. With a little effort, sangria can be a refined, refreshing beverage perfect for summertime sipping. 

Buy decent wine: Since wine is the star, put a bit of thought into the bottle you pick. For traditional sangria, grab a young, Spanish red (sangria means “blood” in Spanish). Of course, white wines, rosés and even sparkling wines are great for sangria as well. Don’t break the bank — just find an affordable, straightforward option to use as your base.

Use the seasons: Classically, sangria is loaded with chopped fruits like apples and pears. But don’t limit yourself. Hit the farmer’s market and see what looks good, from berries and peaches to melons. Make sure to include some citrus in the form of slices or fresh juice. And think about what will complement the wine: strawberries, for instance, are a natural fit for a rosé-based sangria.

Go easy on sweet: A little sugar goes a long way, and nobody wants a syrupy drink on a blazing hot day. Add your sweetener (whether it’s sugar, honey or a liqueur like triple sec) slowly and taste until you find the perfect level.

Brandy, you’re a fine spirit: While brandy is the traditional choice for sangria, decent bottles can get expensive. I prefer to stray from tradition and add some rum, gin or pisco. Better still, try playing with bitter liqueurs like Campari or Cynar (check out Smallman Galley’s bitter sangria, above). They will add some necessary sweetness while still providing a stimulating, bitter kick.

Experiment!: Ultimately, sangria is more of a loose concept than an established recipe. Keep it simple or get as creative as you like, adding herbs, exotic fruits or unexpected liqueurs. The drink’s versatility makes it perfect for a summer gathering, able to be whipped up in minutes for groups of any size. And if you start with fresh fruit and decent wine, it’s hard to go wrong.

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