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How Sweet It Is 

If cheese is milk's leap toward immortality, than sangria might be every bad, cheap or damaged red wine's idea of redemption.

"Box wine, jug wine, it doesn't really matter. Six dollars a bottle is pretty high for making sangria," says bartender Suzanne Accorsi, who sells gallons of the stuff at her Faubourg St. John bar Pal's Lounge.

Despite the lowborn pedigree of its main ingredient, the drink is an indisputable crowd-pleaser, especially when temperatures and humidity rise. Any good sangria recipe will throw a grocery basket of other ingredients at the wine — club soda to water it down, sugar or honey to sweeten it up, brandy and triple sec for fortification, fresh citrus for tartness, cinnamon for a veil of spice, juice to smooth everything over. Add ice, dispense in big glasses and down it goes in refreshing gulps.

"Sangria is a very forgiving recipe because you can toss so many different things in there to even it out if it goes too far one way or the other," says Alan Walter, bartender at Iris Restaurant in the Riverbend. "At a restaurant, it's a great thing to do with wine that you shouldn't really be serving for $9 a glass anymore."

Walter himself prefers to drink sangria in more casual settings than a restaurant dining room, however, and believes it makes a great drink to share at a house party or barbecue because it can be made in very large batches ahead of time.

Spaniards guzzle numerous variations on the theme as well. Tinto de verano, for instance, is red wine mixed with lemonade or fruit-flavored soda. Meanwhile, American tipplers who insist on mixing perfectly good vodka with the "energy" drink Red Bull might relate to calimocho — cheap red wine mixed with Coca-Cola. Sangria variations that have gained a foothold in New Orleans include swapping the red wine out for white to make sangria blanca or using cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, for an extra fizzy effect.

Whether adulteration or elevation, the penchant for mixing sweet, cold wine punches is one that runs deep in many Spanish homes and taverns.

"In my family and many others, from the time you were kids dad would give you one-tenth a glass of wine, the rest filled up with lemon soda or sparkling water, something like that," says Laurentino Sales, a native of Spain's Catalonia region and owner of Laurentino's Restaurant in Metairie.

"As you grow up, dad adds a little more wine, a little less soda, so by the time you're 18 he's giving you half and half. That gives us the taste for sangria," he says. "It's like the table wine for lunch. You can have wine, but not get drunk."

In New Orleans, however, sangria often serves the very specific purpose of getting people drunk. Thanks to the diversity of recipes, sangria's alcoholic content can range from mild to mighty. In some versions, the wine is watered down for a lighter, weaker drink. In others, the fortifying addition of liquor can pack a wallop, and a sneaky one at that since the sweet juice usually conceals the alcohol.

While sangria may have broad appeal, others dismiss it as a party drink for dumbed down palates.

At RioMar, with its theme of Spanish and Latin American seafood and its newly added tapas bar, chef and co-owner Adolfo Garcia often hears customer requests for sangria, but he says he refuses to add it to his list.

"I just think it's an abomination," Garcia says. "It's like paella to me. Maybe we'll do it for a big barbecue type setting, but it's just not conducive to á la carte fine dining. It's like the white zinfandel of Spain."

Perhaps there is some middle ground to be found in a drink Walter concocted called the Cabernet cocktail. He mixes the grape-based Ciroc vodka, fruit juices, an ounce of Cabernet and a dash of maraschino liqueur. Iced and strained into a martini glass, it's a potent, elegant, fruit- and wine-flavored drink.

"I tell people it's like a rough watercolor sketch of sangria," says Walter.

click to enlarge Alan Walter pours a Cabernet cocktail at Iris Restaurant. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Alan Walter pours a Cabernet cocktail at Iris Restaurant.
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