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Why mineral waters taste different
Twelve months is a long time in a recession. This time last year we were all writing about 30 bottle water lists and 50 bottles of water. In 2009 all the talk is about tap. The unease we may have felt at flying bottles half way round the globe and lack of political correctness in drinking designer water while many have none has been superceded by the the more prosaic necessity to cut down our personal spending.
And yet the mineral water habit is hard to break. According to industry giant Nestl Waters which has 19% of the worldwide market (49% in the US) and owns top brands such as San Pellegrino, Perrier, Vittel and Buxton the market is worth 6.3 billion euros. And most water is still a good deal cheaper than wine.
But what are we actually getting for our money? Water nomenclature is particularly confusing. 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.
The character of a water will depend on the site of its source and the nature of the ‘aquifer’ the porous rock through which the water trickles. Some water, such as glacial waters, come from melted ice and snow, others 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 tends to be - just like wine.
A more illuminating categorisation comes from Jan Bender, the producer of the Danish brand Iskilde which came third in last year’s Decanter water tasting. He divides waters into four types: still waters which he defines as glacier and rainwaters which have no or 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, typically consisting of thick interspersed (horizontal) 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 more suitable as an aperitif then than as a companion to a meal. Finally there are sparkling or ‘bold’ waters which are dominated by their carbonation such as Perrier and San Pellegrino
The nature of the source will affect both the mineral composition and the pH - the acid - alkali balance of the water. The pH for pure water is close to 7.0. Waters with a pH of less than 7 are said to be acidic and those with a pH greater than 7 are described as basic or alkaline. More alkaline waters have a tendency 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 normally 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 the Fine Waters website. “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 3000-5000 mg per litre. “People in Europe feel comfortable with that. Americans less so” comments Mascha.
Our perception is also affected by the degree of carbonation in the water. Mouthfeel is the key factor in tasting because there is no colour or odour to water - or shouldn’t be. Almost all waters are artificially carbonated these days 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” explains Mascha. “Now some producers such as Venn are bottling their waters with different levels of carbonation. Lower levels are more compatible with fine wine and subtle foods such as sushi and sashimi.”
Temperature also makes a difference to the way we perceive water. Still water should be served slightly warmer than sparkling. The San Pellegrino guide to water service on www.sanpellegrino.com) advocates 8-10°C for sparkling water and 10-12°C for still, both very much warmer than the iced water so beloved of many consumers and restaurants. (Adding ice made from tap water by the way is a complete no-no among water connoisseurs)
Not everyone buys into this degree of water connoisseurship. When I asked sommelier Gerard Basset of TerraVina his reaction to the plethora of waters now on the market, he was fairly dismissive. “It’s a bit like top end vodka isn’t it? It’s all about designer bottles. We have two waters on our list, a local one, Hildon and one I particularly like personally, Saint-Geron, but to be honest as a new hotel it’s not a priority for us or for our customers, a third of whom ask for iced tap water. Maybe in a few years time . . .”
Mascha, brimful of missionary zeal, would say ‘Definitely’, not ‘maybe’. “People didn’t have different olive oils years ago” he argues. “Look at them now. Water is not a commodity. It is a natural product with terroir. perhaps the only product that can truly be said to have a terroir because it is of the earth not just of its surface.”
The perfect water terroir
So is there a Romanee conti or Chateau Lafite of waters? “Every remote area of the planet is a great terroir” asserts water guru Michael Mascha. “Anywhere that is far removed from agriculture and cities - Tasmania, Patagonia, the north of Lapland - although occasionally you can find fine waters from a more populous source if the acquifer is sealed off. Unlike wine which is dependant on the climate, water is uniquely dependent on the remoteness and protection of its source.
This article was first published in the February 2009 issue of Decanter.
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