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Kulers Uncorked: Sangria

Gil Kulers, CWE

Gil Kulers, CWE

I never really had much use for sangria, which I thought was Spanish for crappy wine. That was until one July afternoon, when I sat down at a café in Altea, a small town north of Alicante on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. I was seated at the outside bar with my wife, Eleanore, as I watched a young man putting wine, fruit, etc. into a glass pitcher. Naturally, I made the same Smart Aleck remark about the English translation for sangria to the barman.

“The principal behind a great sangria is no different than any great cocktail. It has to have balance and integrity,” says Paul Calvert, bar manager at Pura Vida.

“The principal behind a great sangria is no different than any great cocktail. It has to have balance and integrity,” says Paul Calvert, bar manager at Pura Vida.

Being a terminal wise guy can get you beat up or it can get you free drinks. In this case, it was the latter. The barman laughed politely and poured Eleanore and me two large glasses of his concoction; they were on the house. Needless to say, they were delicious. We ended up having a couple more glasses and wheedling his remarkably simple recipe from him (2-1 red wine to regular Sprite with fresh fruit cut into large chunks).

Paul Calvert, the bar manager of Pura Vida, also learned to love and appreciate sangria during his three months working in Spain. “I gained a certain perspective on day drinking when I was in Spain,” he said. “You want low-proof, wine-based drinks. In the summer, people are hot and drinking more and they don’t want to be completely drunk. [Sangria] is a low-alcohol [buzz] maintainer.”

When Pura Vida’s chef/owner Hector Santiago hired Calvert in May 2011, the 33-year-old, California-native found himself the accidental star of Extreme Makeover: Sangria Edition.

“I don’t remember what the recipe was,” said Calvert. “I do remember it was overly sweet and really inconsistent. That was frustrating. I want the drink to taste the same every night regardless of who makes it.”

Pura Vida's white and red sangrias have tasty, fresh fruit that is almost as good as the drink itself.

Pura Vida's white and red sangrias have tasty, fresh fruit that is almost as good as the drink itself.

Setting up a system to ensure consistency was the easy part for Calvert, but changing perceptions that that all sangria is syrupy sweet was another matter.

“The principal behind a great sangria is no different than any great cocktail,” said Calvert, who gained a bit of national notoriety when he set up the bar program at Sound Table in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. “It has to have balance and integrity.”

At its core, the secret to Calvert’s sangria recipes (one red, one white, recipes below) is fresh fruit and a dash of bitters. “Bitters dries out sangria and brings a balance, depth and spice to the drink.”

A common error many sangria makers make is they let the fruit sit in the wine mixture for hours or days in the mistaken believe they are infusing the drink with fruit flavors, Calvert said. What they really are doing is creating hazy mess and making the fruit impossible to enjoy.

If he could, he would cut up fresh fruit for each batch (much like my bartender did in the sleepy café in Altea). But with the volume of drinks served at Pura Vida’s vibrant bar scene, Calvert is more practical. He preserves the integrity of the fruit by keeping it separate in port wine (or a mixture of sugar and triple sec with the white sangria) to keep it from browning. The fruit is added at the last minute with the base wine mixture poured over it.

And he’d like his customers to know that the fruit inside sangria is not there for aesthetics. You eat the fruit. “A lot of the sangria glasses come back and the fruit is not eaten. They are not thinking to eat fruit from their glass, but the fruit is so fresh and tasty.” And just the right type of bite to brighten your spirit on a hot summer day or night.

Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at gil.kulers@winekulers.com.

Pura Vida White Sangria (serves six)

1 bottle dry, crisp white wine (Spanish verdejo, if possible, 750 ml)
2 oz. dry vermouth
2 oz. triple sec (Marie Brizard, if possible)
2 oz. St. Germain liqueur (or 1 oz. Nikolaihof Elderflower Syrup)
1/4 oz. Fee Brothers grapefruit bitters
2 1/2 cups pineapple and pink grapefruit, chopped (or any seasonal fruit, such as peaches or grapes)
1/4 cup sugar (castor sugar, if possible)
1/4 cup triple sec (or to taste)

Pour wine, vermouth, the first triple sec, St. Germain and bitters in a pitcher. Place pitcher in the refrigerator to chill. Gently mix fruit, sugar and second triple sec in a bowl and place in refrigerator. The fruit will keep for three days; the wine mixture for a week.

Fill glasses with cubed ice. Place two rounded tablespoons of the fruit mixture into the glasses and pour about six ounces of the wine mixture.

Pura Vida Red Sangria (serves six)

1 bottle dry, medium-bodied red wine (a malbec or a Spanish, crianza-level tempranillo or garnacha, if possible, 750 ml)
4 oz. fresh-squeezed orange juice
4 oz. triple sec (Marie Brizard, if possible)
2 oz. ruby port
1/4 oz. Angostura Bitters
2 1/2 cups oranges, red grapes and firm Bosc pears, chopped (or any seasonal fruit, such as peaches or plums)
1/3 cup port

Pour wine, orange juice, triple sec, 2 oz. port and bitters in a pitcher. Place pitcher in the refrigerator to chill. Gently mix fruit and the second port in a bowl and place in refrigerator. Both mixtures will keep for about three days.

Fill glasses with cubed ice. Place two rounded tablespoons of the fruit mixture into the glasses and pour about six ounces of the wine mixture.

Image and styling by Paul Calvert

— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog

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