Water - bottled or tap?
- Friday 23 January 2009
Ayear is a long time in a recession. Twelve months ago we were writing about £50 bottles of water on 30-bottle lists. (Writing fairly dismissively, it should be said – Decanter’s water tasting in the February 2008 issue rated tap water ahead of 20 of 24 samples, leading to a press onslaught on the scandalous price of bottled waters). In credit crunch 2009, all the talk is about tap.
The unease we may have felt at flying bottles half way round the globe, and the lack of political correctness in drinking designer water while many in Africa have none has been superseded by the need to cut our spending. Yet the mineral water habit is
hard to break. According to Nestlé Waters, which has 19% of the globalmarket (49% in the US) and owns brands like San Pellegrino, Perrier, Vittel and Buxton, the market is worth €6.3 billion. And most water is still far cheaper than wine. So what are water afficionados
actually getting for their money?
The description to look out for is natural mineral water, which must come from a recognised spring, be free from contaminants and pollution, consistent in quality and bottled at source. Spring water doesn’t have to come from a specific source and bottled water can be nothing more than processed tap water.
A water’s character depend on the site of its source and the nature of the aquifer, the porous rock through which the water runs. Glacial waters come from melted ice and snow,
other waters from rain that fell thousands of years ago (a historic link of which producers make great play). The older and deeper the aquifer the more complex and diverse the mineral content – just like wine.
A more illuminating categorisation comes from Jan Bender, the producer of the Danish brand Iskilde which came third in Decanter’s 2008 water tasting. He divides waters into four types: still waters which he defines as glacier- and rain-waters which have virtually no minerals and no obvious taste because the water never touches the ground; examples are Cloud Juice and Berg.
Next are alluvial waters such as Iskilde, Vittel and Veen, which come from morraine landscapes, typicallyconsisting of thick interspersed sediments of soil, clay and sand. These tend to have low to medium minerality and are the most flexible with food. Then there are
classical mineral waters which divide into alpine waters such as Gerolsteiner and Valverde and volcanic waters like Fine and Antipodes. These have a medium to high mineral content and a strong mineral taste which makes them better as an aperitif than a companion to a meal.
Finally there are sparkling or bold waters dominated by their carbonation such as
Perrier and San Pellegrino Perception is key The nature of the source will affect the mineral composition and the acid-alkali balance of the water. Pure water has a pH close to 7. Waters with a pH of less than 7 are said to be acidic and those greater are described as basic or alkaline. Alkaline waters tend to taste sweeter and softer than neutral or more acidic ones.
The minerals most commonly found in water are calcium, magnesium, sodium,
potassium and silica, and it is these to which people most often react, though
given the lack of a tasting vocabulary for water, they are hard pushed to define what they’re tasting ‘We call our perception of minerals “salty” because we don’t have another term,’ says Austrian Michael Mascha, author of Fine Waters: a
Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Most Distinctive Bottled Waters and proprietor of
‘Even faced with a high-mineral, low-sodium water, people still tend to describe it as salty.’
The more complex the terroir and the older the water, the greater the mineral content. Water that has been in the ground for 10,000 years on top of an area of volcanic activity can have 3,000mg/l (milligrams per litre) to 5,000mg/l.
‘Europeans feel comfortable with that. Americans less so,’ comments Mascha. Our perception is also affected by the carbonation in the water. Mouthfeel is the key factor in tasting water because there is no colour or odour – or shouldn’t
Almost all waters are artificially carbonated because producers can control the size and persistence of bubbles – just as Champagne houses do. ‘The size of the bubbles used to be an afterthought,’ Venn bottle their waters with differentlevels of carbonation. Lower levels aremore compatible with fine wine and subtle foods such as sushi and sashimi.’
Temperature also makes a difference. Still water should be served warmer than
sparkling. The San Pellegrino guide to water service advocates 8°C to 10°C for
sparkling water and 10°C to 12°C for still – both much warmer than the iced water consumers and restaurants so love. (NB: Adding ice made from tap water is a total no-no among water experts).
Not everyone buys into this degree of water connoisseurship. When I asked
master sommelier and owner of TerraVina Gérard Basset MW his reaction to the
plethora of waters on the market, he was fairly dismissive. ‘It’s like top end vodka.It’s all about designer bottles. We have two waters on our list: a local one, Hildon, and one I like personally, St- Géron. But it’s not a priority for us or our customers, a third of whom ask for iced tap water.’
‘People didn’t have different olive oils years ago,’ Mascha argues. ‘Look at them now. Water isn’t a commodity. It is anatural product with terroir. Perhaps the only product that truly has terroir because it is of the earth not just of its surface.