August 2018 Feature Wine

The year was 1964, and the location was Queens, New York.  The event to see and be seen at was the World’s Fair, and the citizens of the world lined up to see a multitude of marvels and mind-blowing new innovations. Disney unveiled their “It’s a Small World” ride and permanently infected the populace with their ear-worm of a jingle. Ford unveiled the Mustang for the first time, and motorists paid an unbelievable 30 cents/gallon to fill the tank of this quintessential American muscle car.  Attendees of the Fair observed men zipping around the sky wearing jetpacks and like a scene right out of the Jetsons, folks were able to video-chat with people living across the continent for the first time.

The beverage that was all the rage at the Fair that year could be found at the Spanish Pavilion.  It was a concoction that primarily featured a dry red wine from the Rioja region of Northern Spain.  Other ingredients included brandy, and orange juice, with slices of fresh fruit floating throughout this adults-only punch.  Since it’s high profile introduction at the World’s Fair, Sangria has only been increasing in popularity on this continent for the past half century.  However, the origin of this beverage has veins that reach centuries into the past. This is fitting, since its name, “Sangria” translates quite simply to English as “blood.”

Tempranillo is the blood red wine traditionally used to make Sangria.  The root word, “Temprano” means “early,” which describes this grape’s tendency to ripen earlier than other Spanish grapes. In Rioja’s neighboring Spanish regions, Tempranillo goes by a variety of names, among them; Tinto Fino, Cencibel, Tinto del Pais, Tinto de Toro, Tinto de Madrid, and in Portugal (where it is used to make Port), it goes by the moniker Tinta Roriz. Tempranillo is considered one of the nine red noble grapes.  Believed to have been introduced to the Iberian Peninsula by the Phoenicians more than three thousand years ago, Tempranillo also has the distinction of being one of the longest cultivated grapes in history.

The winemakers of the Rioja region take the production of their flagship varietal very seriously.  So much so that in order to ensure quality consistency, in 1926 they formed a wine control board called the Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja. There are four categories that the Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja uses to define the quality and aging of a bottle of Tempranillo, and here inlies this month’s pro-tip for selecting the perfect bottle for your taste palate.  

Tempranillo’s taste profile features cherry, dried figs, cedar, dill, tobacco and leather.  If you find a bottle that has no further indicator other than the region of Rioja, you can assume that the bottle in hand is going to be a youngster, and that the fruitier aspects of the grape will be prominent. This bottle has spent no time aging in oak casks, and little to no time aging in the bottle.

The second tier is known as “Crianza.”  Roughly translated, crianza means “nurtured” or “matured”. What that means for the bottle you find on the shelf is that it has spent at minimum one year in (typically) American oak casks, and a few months aging in the bottle before being released for retail.  Though still fruit forward, Crianza will start to exhibit the full-bodied flavors of Tempranillo, with medium tannins. This table wine would probably be my pick for a Sangria base.

“Reserva” refers to the third tier of Rioja Tempranillo.  Also aged in oak casks for at least one year, this chewier red must also spend at least two years aging in bottle before it is ready for the shelf.  Probably the most popular version of Tempranillo, Reserva features all the rich leather and tobacco notes that experienced Rioja consumers are looking for,  while still remaining accessible to novice consumers.

“Gran Reserva” could also be called the Grand Poo Bah of Tempranillo. Only the highest quality grapes are used for this tier of Tempranillo.  The wine then spends at least two years in cask, and no less than three years in bottle before being released for sale. Because Gran Reserva has the highest tannin structure of the Tempranillo options it can be laid down for up to three decades.  Not for the faint of heart, this rich, rustic, and leathery wine definitely benefits from a decanting prior to quaffing.

So, who’s bright idea was it to come up with the fruit punch known the world over as Sangria?  Once again, we must raise our collective glasses to the innovative drinkers of the Mediterranean.  The Greeks (later copied by the Romans) mixed their wine with sugar, and spices like cinnamon, ginger, and even peppers.  They would also water it down a bit, probably so the could “day-drink” all day, every day. This concoction was known as “Hippocras” and was so called after the 5th century (BC) Greek physician, Hippocrates.  Hippocras remained a popular beverage throughout the Middle Ages, and eventually evolved into both Sangria, as well as the Holiday favorite, mulled wine.

It is amusing to look back at the “innovations” that were unveiled at the 1964 World’s Fair.  We may not be getting around via jetpacks, and gas prices have increased more than tenfold. “It’s a Small World After All” may still be stuck in our collective head, but Disney’s annamatronics now seem charmingly antiquated. However, thanks to the internet, video-chatting is commonplace, and on the internet we can find endless variations of the recipe for the ever-popular Sangria. Today, you even have the option to try pre-fabricated Sangrias.  Personally, I recommend you try the time tested fresh fruit infused recipe that was introduced half a century ago to the refreshment and delight of the attendees of the World’s Fair.