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Does taste-testing hold any bottled water?

Think only wine and cheese deserve a sophisticated palette? Culinary expert Michael Mascha explains how to distinguish bottled waters and pair them with complimentary foods.

At first glance, waters may not seem to have the individual characteristics that distinguish wines, but distinct differences become apparent when the attention is focused on water.

Creating a matrix matching all foods with bottled waters would be impossible, and it would surely take the fun out of experimenting with various combinations. The rules below should be taken as starting points for an exploration — use them when water is the only beverage you are serving. The percentages indicate how much weight the factor should be given in making your choice.

The 75 percent rule: The sensation of the whole dish should be matched with the carbonation level of the water. The mouthfeel generated by the bubbles should be matched with the mouthfeel of the dish. Loud, big, bold bubbles overpower subtle dishes, while still water might be too great a contrast with crispy food. Bigger bubbles would stand up better to the mouthfeel of such a dish. An alternative epicurean pleasure can be achieved by carefully contrasting the mouthfeel of a dish with a water's carbonation. Sushi with a still or even effervescent carbonated water is a perfect example.

The 20 percent rule: The dominant food items of the dish should be matched with the mineral content of the water. Low TDS waters have a light, sometimes crisp, perception, while higher TDS levels give the water some weight and substance. High levels of sodium (salt), bicarbonate, and silica (or their absence) can also have some impact on the perception of the water. Use sodium-free water with caviar or water with a high bicarbonate level for cheese. Softer waters (low in calcium and magnesium) with higher silica levels can display a nice sweet softness that works well with some desserts.

The 5 percent rule: Fine-tune the drinking experience with the water's acidity or alkalinity. A neutral pH works well with anything. Sometimes a sweet perception is possible in waters with a slight alkalinity, while waters with a very high pH may demonstrate a very subtle bitterness, but never an unpleasant one.

Try matching acidic water with fatty food or seafood. The contribution that pH factor makes to food and water matching is easily overrated — only on the outer ranges of the spectrum (less than 5 or more than 10) does it play a more significant role.

Water, wine and food
If water is consumed alongside wine, different considerations apply: The water now plays a secondary role and needs to be matched with the wine, not the food. This is very important; you don't want water and wine competing with each other for attention.

If you drink carefully matched wine with your dish, only still water is appropriate — a clear distinction between main character (wine) and supporting cast (water) is necessary. But there is a slight difference between red and white wine: With white wine, choose water with a low mineral content and a neutral pH; red wine demands water with a medium to high mineral content and a neutral pH.

The water should have a slightly higher temperature than the wine to prevent taking attention away from the wine. Think about stemware, too — most reputable producers of wineglass series offer water glasses that complement the wine glasses.

IntangiblesBeyond the pure flavor considerations, you should also take intangible qualities like presentation and a water's story into account when choosing your bottled water. The bottle plays an important role in the overall perception of the water. Since water has no notable visible characteristics of its own, the bottle has a remarkable impact on perceived value. Matching the presentation to the venue or event may have no influence on the actual taste (as any blind water tasting will tell you), but doing so can significantly enhance the experience, or be detrimental to it.

Plastic or glass; minimalist or traditional design; attention grabbing or discreet; blue or transparent bottlers offer many presentation options. Wine bottle design, on the other hand, is fairly uniform, most wineries focus all their attention on the label. With water, we are lucky: Both the label and the bottle can express terroir (as is the case for Antipodes, Bling H2O, and Finé).

Every good sommelier tells you a little story about the wine he or she is pouring you. Does it make the wine taste better? No. Does it make the wine feel more special and unique? Absolutely. The same is true for water: Sharing the story of the water its source and origin, vintage, and the location and circumstances of its bottling can contribute significantly to the overall experience.

How to conduct a water tasting
There are about 3,000 brands of bottled water world wide and a tasting provides the best introduction to the surprising richness of epicurean experiences with water.

Here are directions for conducting your own. I recommend that, at the beginning, it not be conducted blind: A water tasting should be fun more of an introduction to the differences in bottled waters than a hardcore blind tasting, which can be intimidating.

As the host, you should provide information on all the waters and let people enjoy the tactile experience of handling the bottle.

Here are a few guidelines:

Buy as many waters as possible from each of the five FineWaters Balance categories:

  • Still
  • Effervescent
  • Light
  • Classic
  • Bold

One bottle is enough for six to eight people. You should have at least five waters 10 is a better number (one to two in each category). Within each of the categories, try to find waters with different TDS levels (amount of minerals in the water), sources (spring water or rainwater), or countries or regions of origin. Chill all the waters to about 55 degrees Fahrenheit to nicely showcase the differences in the waters. Make sure they stay at the same temperature throughout the tasting otherwise their qualities (or the perception of them) will change. You will need one proper water glasses per person.

If you don't have water glasses with a stem use white wine glasses. Start with still and work your way through the levels up to bold. You can swallow, but have a bucket ready for emptying glasses. Serve bread or crackers, but not salty food. Make notes if you wish, describing how the water feels (short, long, focused, wide, and so forth).

Because the waters vary significantly in mineral content, mouthfeel, and other characteristics, picking a best water and it is not the goal of such a tasting. Instead, think of foods that would be good complements to particular waters.

Featured waters

IskildeCountry of Origin:           DenmarkRegion:                        Mossø ReservationPlace Name:                 IskildeEstablished:                  2005Source:                        Spring WaterBalance:                       Still & Light                   Virginality:                     SuperiorMinerality:                     MediumHardness:                     Very HardOrientation:                   Hint of Sweet

A discreet, elegant, and functional presentation in glass for any epicurean setting. Iskilde succeeds in transporting the sensation of drinking the water at the spring to the table.

"Iskilde" means "cold spring" in Danish. The artesian spring was discovered in the Mossø Conservation area in a remote part of the Danish lake highlands in 2001. The aquifer is 150 -180 ft below the surface and it is covered by alternating layers of quartz-sand and hard clay, protecting the water. With a temperature of below eight degrees, the spring is unusually cold.Similar waters: Evian

Country of Origin:           FranceRegion:                         AuvergnePlace Name:                 Village de Saint-GéronSource:                         Spring WaterBalance:                       Classic Virginality:                     SuperiorMinerality:                     HighHardness:                     Very HardOrientation:                   AcidicVintage                         1,000 yearsCarbonation                   Natural

A rare naturally sparkling water with the associated high Minerality and high levels of bicarbonates, said to be beneficial for digestion. The elegant glass bottle was created by painter and designer Alberto Bali.

The mineral springs of Saint. Geron in the Auvergne region of France has a long history going back to the Gallo-Roman time. The water emerges at the spring after a 1,000 year journey through the rock formation as a natural sparkling. At the end of the 19th century during work on the water collection reservoir antique wells and coins and offerings from the Gallo-Roman period were discovered at the source.Similar waters: San Pellegrino

Vichy Catalan
Country of Origin:           SpainRegion:                         CataloniaPlace Name:                 Caldes de MalavellaSource:                         Spring WaterBalance:                       Classic Virginality:                     SuperiorMinerality:                     Very HighHardness:                     HardOrientation:                   AlkalineCarbonation                   Natural

The best-known mineral water from Spain, Vichy Catalan has very high mineral content, natural carbonation, and an almost neutral pH.

Archaeological evidence suggests the area near Caldes de Malavella has had a human population since prehistoric times. The many local sources of effervescent, thermal water were likely a major attraction. Both springs draw from a single aquifer, though each water emerges with slightly different compositions. Vichy Catalan water was first bottled in 1889, and an influx of visitors led to the construction of a spa soon after. Water and carbon dioxide gas are harvested separately from the source, which is capped to control the output; after the water has cooled from 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60°C), the gas is added back in.Similar waters: Apollinaris, Gerolsteiner
Tasmanian Rain
Country of Origin:           AustraliaRegion:                         TasmaniaPlace Name:                 Table CapeSource:                         RainBalance:                       Still       Virginality:                     SuperiorMinerality:                     Super LowHardness:                     SoftOrientation:                   AcidicVintage                         Very Young

Soft and neutral rain water in glass, perfect for the most subtle dishes or exclusive ice cubes.

Tasmanian Rain is rainwater is captured on the pristine north west coast of the island of Tasmania. The water is collected just minutes of where the World Meteorological Organization records the world's purest air. The rain is collected by a custom-designed catchment facility and collected in stainless steel tanks and shipped to the USA where it is bottled to minimize the carbon footprint.Similar waters: Cape Grim, Cloud Juice (rain waters) and berg (iceberg water) or Le Bleu

Country of Origin:           FijiRegion:                         Viti LevuPlace Name:                 Nakauvadra MountainsSource:                         ArtesianBalance:                       Still       Virginality:                     SuperiorMinerality:                     LowHardness:                     Moderately HardOrientation:                   Hint of SweetVintage                         450 years

A low mineral content water, high in silica, with a possible sweet perception and an overall smooth sensation.

Before it reaches the aquifer on Viti Levu, Fiji water begins as rain falling on the island's highlands and tropical forests. Volcanic rock filters the rainwater, and the remoteness of the island ensures that it is uncontaminated by artificial substances. The water was first sold in the United States in 1997 and its great success can be attributed to a celebrity-oriented marketing campaign and the appealing bottle.Similar water: Panna

Dasani is a purified municipal water, enhanced with minerals. It comes in light blue-tinted, recyclable bottles. Dasani is The Coca-Cola Company's first bottled water in North America. To create Dasani, Coca-Cola bottlers start with the local water supply, which is then filtered for purity using reverse osmosis. The purified water is then enhanced with a special blend of minerals.Similar waters: Tap water or filtered tap water

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