When the idea to do a sangria face-off came about it really was one of those things where we said we would do it, but honestly there were some doubts that it would materialize. First, there was no possible way we could go to ALL the places in Charlotte that sell sangria; and second, how were we going to decide where to go? Luckily we chose to keep our selection to 6 restaurants and in alignment with the types of places we like to review (independent and most often locally owned). The restaurants we went to were also very different in regards the type of cuisine they offer. Vivace for instance is Italian, Zen is Asian fusion, Pio Pio is Peruvian rotisserie, La Paz is Mexican, Malabar is Spanish, and Viva Chicken (only reviewed by Maria) is also Peruvian. If you are a fan of sangria we hope that the list we compiled is able to offer you some decent options of which to try and which you might want to reconsider.
Since we all have different taste we decided to shed a little light on what we both look for in our sangria and then go into what we thought about each of the places. Also, if you make it through the full review you will find a surprise at the end of page
Ana and Maria say…
The bottom line: Since sangria is from Spain you’d think the Spanish do it best, but I ended up liking the sangria at La Paz! – Maria
Indeed, the Spanish do it best but this foodie just may stick with the recipe in her pantry - Ana
Our Ideal Sangria
Maria: I first had sangria during a visit to Spain and I can honestly say I was hooked. For me it was the perfect marriage of fruit, wine, and other liquors. My perfect sangria is one with fruit pieces that you can eat after you are done drinking. I like it to be sweet but not to the point that I am drinking pure sugar. From all the mixtures that I have had I really like the combination of red wine, rum, and orange juice. Also, chopping fruits like apple, strawberries, grapes, etc. adds a little something extra to the sangria.
Ana: Sangria is one of my favorites drinks. I can’t really say when I had it for the first time. My memory goes back to Christmas time in the Dominican Republic. No, I wasn’t drinking Sangria as a kid but I remember the familiar bottle that would come out at that time of the year and the random sip from a grown-ups glass (you know you have done it too!). To me the perfect Sangria is sweet but not overwhelmingly so, the wine should come through but it should not be the star. Neither should the juices. I like to taste the kick that the other liquors give the wine and juice. I tend to favor sangrias that are made with brandy as I think it gives it a special undertone that might not be detected unless you are familiar with it.
Ana: For the purpose of this face off I chose to stick with red sangria. It is, of course, my favorite. I have yet to find white sangria that will keep my attention. Most of the places featured below only offer the red sangria. I am sure a friendly bartender could be swayed to make other versions for you.
In true Ana and Maria fashion this also turned into a mini food crawl. That was not our intention at all when we started it just sort of happened…
Ana (Rank 5): Vivace was our first stop of the day. Vivace is an upscale Italian restaurant. They have multiple sitting areas with two floors. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon so we decided to enjoy our sangria on their outdoor lounge area.
Vivace’s sangria while good was a bit light. They describe it on their menu as wine with juice and if you have fully read this article then you now know that this just won’t cut it for me. Proper sangria has other liquors. The way I would describe this sangria is as juice with a splash of wine. I did like that they serve it on a really big glass. So if you are a light weight this is the sangria for you. It was the clearest sangria that we tried all night.
At Vivace we had the hazelnut tres leche cake. It is worth mentioning that while I will not be coming back for the sangria I will definitely come back for their tres leche cake. The cake was moist and very light. It had a whipped topping served with hazelnuts on top. The dessert was not very sweet which I loved and it is definitely a generous portion perfect for sharing.
Maria (Rank 5): I must agree with Ana on this as well. For me Vivace’s sangria had to be the lightest we tried. It had a good taste, but did not remain true to the real sangria recipe (in my opinion). It was also served with a a good portion of ice cubes so I think this might have helped to give it that watered down feeling towards the end. Strength wise I believe you would be better off with just a regular glass of wine.
Ana (Rank 2): La Paz was our second stop. If it had not been for the pineapple juice in this sangria this would have been the top one for me. You will not find the sangria on the menu but make sure to ask the bartender as they make a fresh batch every day. The sangria at La Paz was served on a generous glass and it was very dark. It was made with a mixture of juices (pineapple was one), bourbon, wine, and topped with Bacardi orange. And oh boy I can tell you right now that you will taste all of that. I liked this sangria a lot because it was a very flavorful combination. I felt that it stroke a good balance between all of the ingredients. The only downside for me was the pineapple juice. With this particular combination of liquors and juices I felt that the pineapple gave it a particular after taste. I would definitely drink it again though.
While we enjoyed our sangria we were served chips and salsa. We were given both the usual salsa and salsa verde. It is worth noting that the salsas served at La Paz were very fresh tasting. I am definitely coming back to try some of their dishes on a future visit.
Maria (Rank 1): I love pineapple juice, so for me this was not a deterrent when it came to this sangria. Like Ana I was really on the fence between the sangria at La Paz and the one at Malabar. What made me go towards La Paz is that this sangria was sweet enough and strong enough without one characteristic over powering the other. I felt like I could taste the juices mixed in there (I believed the bartender also mentioned orange juice). The wine was not too dry at all and complemented everything else beautifully.
Ana (Rank 4): Zen Fusion was our third stop. Zen has a very interesting concept. They are an Asian fusion restaurant that also serves Spanish food. You will find a variety of asian dishes, sushis, as well as Spanish favorites. I ended up trying their fresh sushi rolls. They are basically sushi wrapped in rice paper. I did tell you this turned into a mini food crawl, didn’t I?
Zen has both red and white sangria. I opted for the red sangria. Their sangria is made with wine, brandy, and rum. They also served it with pieces of apples in the mixture rather than on the glass as other places we visited that night. Their sangria was alright. It was better than Vivace but after La Paz it was hard to follow up. I did love the mixture of the brandy and rum. I felt that sweetness of the Brandy came through well.
Maria (Rank 4): At Zen I had the white sangria. Out of all the places we visited it was the only one that even had it on the menu so I thought I would change things up a little. For the most part white sangria has always been more juice like for me than anything else. It really has a different taste than your red sangria as well. Overall, the white sangria at Zen was good, although like Ana said it was difficult to compare after having the one at La Paz. I liked it because it went down smoothly.
However, I can’t say that I tasted much of the wine or any other liquor that might have been used although the description did say that it incorporated sake. Overall, it was a refreshning drink but not something I would go out of my way for.
Ana (Rank 3): Pio Pio was our fourth stop. You would think that after that much sangria we would be truly crawling to this places. That was not the case at all. In fact one person remarked that we were owed a refund!
Pio Pio had really good sangria. They won’t tell us what is in it because apparently it is a closely guarded secret. I will tell you that at first I wasn’t impressed but it got better and better the more I tasted. Upon the first sip it felt very light. It took a couple of sips before I got to the point where I was enjoying it. I did like that they cut the fruit in very small pieces so that you can drink it rather than scooping it out.
Yes, we ate a little something at Pio Pio too. I had the chicken empanada. Pio Pio serves their empanadas made with corn dough rather than flour. Something that differs among the different Latin American countries. It was really good, the crust was similar to cornbread (picture fried cornbread) and it was stuffed with a good amount of shredded chicken. Maria had the beef empanada. The waiter accidentally swapped our order(which worked out just fine with me!) and I took a bite of that one as well. I found the one filled with beef more flavorful. In future visits I would opt for that one. It is also worth mentioning that this little treats are very affordable at $1.50 each.
Maria (Rank 3): As you can see I am letting Ana do all the commenting on the food because honestly, by this point I was so stuffed I am glad this was our last food stop of the night! However, I am in agreement with all the assessment she has made about all the food we ate.
Now onto the sangria at Pio Pio. I had originally had this drink a while ago while having dinner with friends. And to be honest, it was this sangria that sort of sparked the whole, lets have a sangria face-off idea! I really like this sangria because like Ana says it surprises you the more you end up drinking (and no, it’s not because you are getting drunk!). It’s just so smooth, but whatever they put in it is potent enough to make you feel like it’s not a weak sangria. I also enjoyed that they serve it with small pieces of fruit.
This sangria is ranked 3 because it honestly is in the middle. The wine is definitely there but it is not the strongest ingredient of the mixture. It is that kind of drink that’s dangerous because you can just keep on drinking. Luckily we only stuck to one!
Ana (Rank 1): Malabar and La Paz were neck to neck for me. La Paz had the stronger sangria but Malabar just hit the right spot. I could taste the wine (they used a drier red wine I am guessing) but I could also taste the other liquors as well. They also had pieces of fruit in their sangria.
While we sat there we tried to find out what the ingredients of this sangria were but we were told the recipe was more guarded than the Coca Cola recipe. This sangria is actually very close in taste to my favorite recipe so I would not be surprised if they use similar ingredients.
Maria (Rank 2): Although Malabar’s sangria was exceptionally delicious there are two reasons why I ranked it #2. One it was because to me it did have the dry wine taste and I am not the biggest fan of dry wine. Of course bear in mind that this is my personal preference and why La Paz sangria beat this one just so slightly. Were it not for this reason I would have picked Malabar’s sangria for sure.
The second reason is because I had Malabar’s sangria a couple of moths ago and that time it definitely did not taste like it did this time. I am not sure if it might be because their recipe changed or something but it did make me a little apprehensive on whether the yummy sangria we had during our face-off was a one time thing. Hopefully Malabar will stick to whatever recipe they are using now because it is worth the money you pay for it.
Maria (Rank 6): Viva Chicken wasn’t exactly part of our face-off but I thought I’d mention it since I had just had their sangria earlier that week. I honestly was expecting something more or less good since I had read such good reviews for this restaurant. Granted the reviews were for the food and not the sangria (and the food is another story for another post…). To be honest with you the sangria from Viva Chicken had the be the least strong of them all. It’s red sangria served with pieces of fruit, yet there really isn’t much of a taste of wine or any other type of liquor in this beverage.
I went here with my coworkers and they started joking around with me because it was a hot day and I seriously downed it in like 3 gulps. The sangria tasted more like juice with a hint of wine. Price wise it’s very close to all the other ones that we have featured on this list (ranging from $6-8 a glass). Although it wasn’t the worst sangria I had ever tasted I would prefer to have any other one from the list any given day.
Ana’s Ideal Sangria
Now that we have told you all about our sangria experience we want to share with you Ana’s favorite sangria recipe. I found this recipe many, many years ago and I have stuck with it. Although I have made alterations and improvisations over the years (like omitting the soda because who wants a watered down drink anyway?) it is the one recipe that I keep coming back to and that my friends and family love. Enjoy!