In the middle of summer in southern Spain, the glare of the sun is so intense that even the gangs of pigeons, usually busy scouring the streets for scraps, are cooling off in the shadows of the mighty cathedrals. Then there are the people, relaxing in wicker chairs at the tiny bars that occupy every corner of the plaza, relaxing with their glasses of effervescent, ruby red Tinto de Verano.
A go-to summer drink for many Spaniards, Tinto de Verano is a simple combination of red wine and lemon soda, which lends the cocktail a refreshing fizz and subtle sweetness.
Tinto de Verano has more to do with Spanish life than just the seasonal climate; its invention, as well as its evolution, intertwines with the country’s culture, traditions and foodways. Though the drink may be categorized as a cocktail on menus, its debut predates the modern cocktail movement. The most popular theory of how it came about runs through the southern city of Córdoba, where summer is especially hot and long. According to Spanish food journalist Alfredo Martín-Gorriz, in the 1920s, Federico Vargas, shop owner of La Venta de Vargas, started to add soda from his siphon to aerate his house red wine, making it more refreshing for heat-struck traders, musicians and bullfighters. It became an instant hit, earning the beverage the name “Vargas.”
Around the same time in nearby La Rambla, Rafael Alguacil Romero started manufacturing soda and sarsaparilla under the name Alguacil Beverage Company. His Alguacil lemon soda, together with lots of ice, was soon added to the popular Vargas drink to impart a touch of sweetness, making it easier to throw back on a hot afternoon.
“Like gazpacho, it really only belongs to the summer; at the first hint of the chill, the drink disappears,” says Eduardo Garcia, manager of Socarrat, a Spanish restaurant with several locations in New York City. Eventually, the Vargas took on a name that mirrors the season—Tinto de Verano, which translates to “summer red wine.”
Fast-forward to today, and the formula for Tinto de Verano is as rote as that of gintónica: cheap red wine, ice and La Casera, the citrusy national soda so ubiquitous that the locals refer to it simply as gaseosa. (Other lemon sodas, such as Kas Limón, Sprite or 7UP, may also be used.)
There’s something to be said about the red wines favored for this drink, too. Dubbed “table wines,” in Spain they are typically sold by weight at small local shops. “They’re usually the young wines that weren’t selected for barrel aging and are so purple that [they] can stain your glasses,” says Garcia. “The taste is a bit too strong and tannin-forward for drinking straight.” In the States, it may be tough to find table wines sold by weight, but Garcia recommends bargain-priced garnacha and tempranillo as alternatives.
To make the sharp reds more palatable, adding a dash of sweetness and refreshing bubbles just made sense, and the move unintentionally served a secondary purpose that met the Spaniards’ cultural needs. Enter: la siesta, a two hour break from work to eat lunch with family, accompanied by a glass of wine, preferably light.
“We normally go home to take a lunch break from 2 to 4 and have wine with it,” says Garcia. “But because we need to go back to work, we prefer something light. If you drink sangria, which has other spirits and higher wine content, you may not be able to return to work.” At Socarrat, the Tinto de Verano is made in a large pitcher designed for sharing.
To make the drink properly, Robert Sanfiz, executive director of La Nacional, the restaurant within New York’s Spanish Benevolent Society, insists that seeking out Spanish soda is worth the effort. “American-style sodas aren’t the same thing. They’re made with corn syrup, which makes the drink cloyingly sweet,” he says. He takes pride in serving Tinto de Verano at La Nacional the old-fashioned way, preparing the red wine in a glass with ice and a slice of lemon, while leaving it to the guest to add soda from the can to taste.
Modern variations of Tinto de Verano, however, don’t always use red wine—at least not in the strictest sense. At Huertas in New York City’s East Village, owner and chef Jonah Miller spotlights Spanish vermouth, an underappreciated category that tends to be lighter than its more famous Italian counterpart. As the bar team was developing the recipe for their version of Tinto de Verano, Miller found that swapping in vermouth in place of red wine lent the drink a “sweeter, nuttier and more rounded” taste. “It’s a fan-favorite at our restaurant,” he notes.
These days, Tinto de Verano has become so popular that canned versions are hitting the shelves across Spain, including ones with new flavors that swap orange for lemon. A beer version, often going by the name Clara, is also now available.
That the drink is so riffable is a testament to the Tinto de Verano's simple pragmatism, the antithesis to the often-complicated craft cocktail movement of today. “With just three ingredients,” explains Sanfiz, “this is a simple beverage that quenches your thirst and gives you a buzz.”