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For Christmas, Study Up On Your Culture By Understanding The History Of Sangria

Oh, sweet, sweet sangria. Whether you’re a true wine lover or you just like getting lit—sangria was made for just about everybody. It’s boozy, fruity, fresh, and overwhelmingly delicious, perfect for lounging on a beach or kicking back for a movie night with your clique. Known all over the world for its party-fueling powers, sangria actually has quite a curious history (not to mention its highly exciting present—people all over love its punchy flavor). 

Perhaps you should pour yourself a glass right now—you know, to enhance everything you’re going to learn about this typical Spanish beverage.

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Where does this tasty tonic come from? As is the case with most things food and drink, the answer is not exactly straightforward, though many historians trace sangria all the way back to the Roman Empire. In fact, early Greeks and Romans both used to add different ingredients to their wine, from honey to seeds to warming spices, like cinnamon and clove. This haphazard blending of whatever they could find eventually transformed into a beverage called “hippocras,” which was occasionally heated like today’s vino caliente.

Because water was often undrinkable due to contamination, wine and other alcoholic beverages were widely sought after, since alcohol made the water more potable. The people who inhabited Spain around 1100 BC—though, keep in mind that this part of the world was definitely not known as Spain back then—were preparing a similar drink with Phoenician grapevines. They would follow the Romans’ footsteps a few centuries later.

Although alcohol—wine included—virtually disappeared with the invasion of the Islamic Moors in the 8th century, it made its return nearly 800 years later. And with the return of wine came the return of sangria’s ancestors: concoctions that were similar to today’s blend of wine, local fruit, and the occasional spirit, but which probably took a slightly different form.

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The first traceable mention of sangria didn’t appear until the 1800s, and that original reference is connected to the act of bloodletting—not the drink itself.

And since that first mention of sangria, Spain has really laid claim to this beverage, even though its current incarnation is relatively new. If you’ve visited any part of Spain—most notably Barcelona or Madrid—you’ve likely seen sangria advertised in every restaurant, cafeteria, and chiringuito in sight. It is undeniably delicious, incredibly strong, and something of a tourist magnet, and Spain has really embraced it as a symbol of their culinary identity.

In fact, under European law, all sangria must be made on the Iberian Peninsula in order to be classified as Sangria (much like champagne is only technically champagne if it comes from a certain part of France). To qualify as sangria, the mix must also have less than 12 percent alcohol by volume—which, let’s be honest, is probably not the case of most homemade sangrias served on the beach and at wild Spanish parties. It’s super common add bourbon, brandy, or high-proof liqueurs to the mix, and it’s even more difficult to measure the alcohol percentage of a hand-blended pitcher full of booze.

So how did sangria become such an international superstar?

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It’s true—sangria is beloved by people all over the world, especially in the UK and the US. Sangria’s introduction to the US is said to have happened in 1964 during the New York World’s Fair of that year. As 1964 was less than 60 years ago, sangria’s presence in the US more short-lived than many of New York’s Spanish restaurants, which date back to the Spanish Civil War (a conflict that ended in 1939). At the World’s Fair, the Spanish Pavilion served its guests a refreshing, wine-based fruit punch that was an instant hit, and ever since, sangria has been a highly popular summer drink throughout our country and around the world.

A key difference between Spanish sangria and its international counterparts is the type of wine used. Traditionally, wine from the Rioja region is chosen, although Tempranillo varietals were also commonly used (these are generally full-bodied red wines that are less costly to produce). In the UK, French Bordeaux wine is used most often, a region that usually features Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot grapes. In the US, there is not necessarily one preferred varietal, with sangria instead serving as a sort of canvas for bartenders and restaurateurs to experiment. It seems that every place has its own sangria recipe, revising the original template to create a whole array of tart, inviting, powerful beverages.

Although winter may not seem like the season for sangria, there’s never a wrong moment to enjoy this tasty drink. It’s quick, inexpensive, and easy to make—why not pour a pitcher right now? Salud!

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