They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if that’s the case, sangria has earned some high praise. The wine-based beverage’s popularity and strong growth have evolved into a whole new world of innovation both within and outside the category, including the introduction of sangria-flavored variants to the Skyy and UV vodka brands this past spring. And while long-established sangria brands continue to gain, category newcomers are also making their mark.
Last year, Constellation Brands’ Rex Goliath wine introduced a Sangria variant ($6.99 a 750-ml. bottle) that depleted nearly 20,000 cases in its first few months. “It’s been a hit on all fronts,” says Rex Goliath director of marketing Kim Moore. “We get repeated feedback from our sampling program that it’s the best sangria they’ve ever tasted.”
Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits has marketed the upscale, organic Eppa brand ($13.99 a 750-ml. bottle) since 2013, and the company launched Yellow Tail Sangria ($7.99) later that year. In its first full year on the market, the offering depleted over 188,000 cases. CEO Peter Deutsch notes that the Yellow Tail name helped the sangria variant get off to a strong start. “It’s been fairly easy to plug in Yellow Tail Sangria because there’s such a positive feeling about the brand,” he says. “This innovation just makes sense to a lot of people.”
But as the sangria field has gotten more crowded, more established brands are looking to affirm their position. “A few years back, there wasn’t as much competition,” says Ricky Febres, national brand manager of Shaw-Ross International Importers. The company markets Reál sangria ($6.99 to $7.99 a 750-ml. bottle). “Now there’s a lot of excitement and noise out there about the category, which is good,” Febres notes.
Much of the noise surrounding sangria has come from the on-premise, where the fruity punch increasingly occupies its own menu section, separate from wine and cocktails. “Sangria deserves its own category,” says Gretchen Thomas, wine and spirits director of Barteca Restaurant Group. The company operates the 11-unit Barcelona Wine Bar and seven-unit Bartaco concepts in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, Georgia and Washington, D.C. “It’s the only drink on our menu served in pitchers, similar to a section devoted to punches on a cocktail bar menu,” Thomas adds. Barteca’s restaurants all offer red, white and rosé sangrias ($7.50 to $10 a glass; $26.50 to $52 a pitcher), and the group is currently rolling out Agua de Valencia ($11 a glass), a sparkling sangria made with Casas del Mar Cava, Cocchi Americano aperitif, Luxardo Triplum triple sec liqueur and fresh orange juice, garnished with a skewered orange wedge.
Raval, a tapas restaurant and bar in Jersey City, New Jersey, features three standard and two rotating sangrias, all made to order. Assistant manager Ryan McEnerney notes that the drink accommodates a variety of flavors. “You can move with the season and use any type of fruit available,” he explains. “But the most authentic way to make sangria is to use Spanish wine.” Raval’s Sangria de la Casa ($7 a glass; $26 a pitcher) features El Raval Grenache Carignan or Bogatell Garnacha Blanca wine, Deville brandy, Leroux triple sec liqueur, peach purée, lemon-lime soda, and fresh apples, peaches and grapes.
At the two-unit La Pulperia restaurant in New York City, sangria makes up 30 percent of all beverage sales—but the drink isn’t even on the menu. “It’s very well known everywhere,” says beverage director Luis Villanueva, who opts to display large, clear containers of sangria ($12 a glass; $36 a pitcher) on the bar. “If people aren’t sure about trying a cocktail, they can feel confident about sangria. I always say, ‘If you don’t like it, I’ll drink it for you.’ I haven’t had to drink one yet.”
La Pulperia incorporates flavors from across Latin America into its food menu, and Villanueva carries that philosophy over to his sangria recipes. “It’s a punch, so everything is allowed,” he explains. “If you want to put in 20 different fruits, that’s fine. In fact, the more fruit you add, the better the flavor will be.” In addition to white and sparkling variants, La Pulperia offers a red sangria, made with Bodegas Caro Aruma Malbec, Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon, Prunotto Mompertone Monferrato red blend, Cointreau triple sec liqueur, Courvoisier Cognac, Don Q blanco rum, Hiram Walker Peach schnapps, orange, lime and lemon juices, and cinnamon, garnished with pineapples, apples, oranges, limes and lemons.
Although many restaurants and bars make their sangria from scratch, bottled brands have noticed an uptick in on-premise demand, with bartenders using the premade sangria as a starting point for custom recipes. “In the national chains, they’re looking for consistency and convenience,” Shaw-Ross’s Febres explains. “They use it as a base, adding a little Grand Marnier, Cointreau or brandy and a fruit garnish.” Febres has also noticed rising demand for white sangria, which he attributes to its growing presence on restaurant drinks lists. “Sangria is synonymous with red, so it’s been a learning curve for some people,” he says. “The on-premise has helped a lot. Every other restaurant now has red and white sangrias on the menu.”
Biagio Cru and Estate Wines’ Lolailo sangria ($5.99 a 750-ml. bottle)—an Impact “Hot Brand” for several years running—markets a 187-ml. bottle ($1.89) that has taken hold in the on-premise as a single-serve option. Biagio principal Darren Restivo has also observed bartenders mixing it with a traditional Margarita to up the cocktail’s sweetness. “We call it a Lorita,” he says. “Lolailo has great integrity and quality to incorporate into some really interesting drinks.”
The recent popularity of sweet wines like Moscato has had an impact on the sangria category, with most marketers seeing positive trends thanks to increasing consumer preference for such flavors. E&J Gallo markets the Madria and Carlo Rossi Sangria brands, which both include Moscato variants.
This past spring, Yellow Tail rolled out two new sangria extensions—Yellow Tail Sangria Blanco ($7.99 a 750-ml. bottle) and Yellow Tail Sangria Bubbles ($9.99), a sparkling red sangria. “It’s a convergence of a number of trends,” Deutsch explains. “We think bubbles—especially value bubbles—are hot. Wines like rosé and Moscato are crisp and refreshing, and this whole concept seems to be really popular. We saw an opportunity to create a taste profile, married with bubbles, that’s appealing to today’s consumer.”
Deutsch has observed both established Yellow Tail drinkers and newcomers enjoying the sangria offerings. “Sweeter wines like sangria appeal to consumers who are new to the wine category,” he says. Moore of Rex Goliath notes similar trends and adds that the sangria “has been particularly popular among female and Hispanic consumers.”
Biagio’s Restivo agrees that growing sales of sweet varietals are good for sangria. “It’s helping us drive attention to the sweet category,” he says. “Sangria stands alone, so these other sweet wines don’t hurt our sales.” He points to certain factors that help consumers differentiate among the various options. “As a Spanish import, Lolailo meets European standards for what makes a sangria,” he explains, referring to legislation passed last year by the European Parliament that imposes restrictions on labeling wines produced outside of Spain or Portugal as sangria.
Some retailers, however, are noticing declines in sangria sales as other sweet wines have grown. “Once Moscato came out, it really took off, especially pink and red offerings,” says Doug Werner, South Carolina wine buyer for the five-unit Green’s Discount Beverages in South Carolina and Georgia. “The sweet wine customer base is drifting toward Moscato. We used to have two 4-foot sections—one each for sangria and Moscato. Now Moscato has about 16 feet of product space.” Werner says sangria still does well at Green’s, but totals only a fraction of the company’s Moscato sales.
Another trend Werner has noticed is sangria’s increasing seasonal consistency. “It’s like rosé: That wine used to be very summery and now it’s consumed year-round. Sangria is the same way,” he says. Restivo of Biagio observes that consumers now regard sangria as they would grape varietals. “Like there’s Merlot, there’s sangria,” he says. “It tastes the same in February as it does in July, and therefore people are drinking it.” He adds that New York has become one of the brand’s leading markets, with strong sales even in the winter.
Newcomer Rex Goliath hit the ground running with a campaign to encourage sangria consumption throughout the year. “Through our social media and p-o-s messaging, we’re trying to expand usage occasions to the fall and holiday season,” Moore explains.
The on-premise has experienced mixed results with the changing seasons. Barteca’s restaurants maintain their focus on sangria throughout the winter. “Cold weather only seems to affect the sales of white sangria, which drop somewhat,” Thomas notes. “But in general, sangria is popular year-round.”
Raval’s McEnerney plans to change the house recipes to reflect winter flavors. “Our specialty sangria will rotate with the fruits and herbs available in winter,” he explains. Meanwhile, at La Pulperia, Villanueva sees a sharp drop in sangria sales during the winter. “I still put them out, but it doesn’t work,” he says.
No matter the time of year, sangria remains a social drink, thanks to its versatility and value. “Large groups order sangria and drink it throughout dinner because it seems less complicated than ordering cocktails or trying to choose a wine to please everyone,” Barteca’s Thomas explains. “It’s a reliable option—plus, it’s very affordable.”
McEnerney of Raval agrees. “There’s so much more to a sangria than just any bottle of wine,” he says. “It’s a fruitful, vibrant drink. It’s fun having a pitcher in the middle of the table that evolves over time as the fruit seeps into the wine, the ice melts and the flavors change.”
As category options expand, sangria looks poised to continue growth. Trinchero Family Estates’ Sutter Home wine brand announced a Sangria extension ($5.99 a 750-ml. bottle) last month. Biagio will release a new sangria product later this year, and Deutsch Family is testing a 375-ml. aluminum can ($6.99) for Eppa that dovetails with the brand’s eco-friendly positioning. In addition, Peter Deutsch anticipates Yellow Tail sangria reaching half a million cases in the near future. “We’re really bullish on sangria,” he says. “We believe it’s going to be the next category to experience explosive premiumization growth, and that’s why we’re so heavily invested.”