We know about food and wine matching, but what about water and wine matching? Sounds crazy? You’d be amazed at what water can do to wine.
The best thing you can do when you’re drinking wine is to stay well hydrated. Alcohol has a natural dehydrating effect, making hydration important not only for your wellbeing, but to keep your senses heightened, because dehydration diminishes your sensitivity to taste and smell.
I drink a lot of water when I’m assessing wine. But not all waters are created equal. Just as a wine is influenced by what you eat with it, it’s also impacted by what you drink with it.
The effect of water on wine is generally quite subtle, but there are mineral waters on the shelves that have a dramatic effect on the palate perception of wine. What are the effects to be wary of, which are the waters to avoid and which are the best partners to wine?
I recently set out to find the answers by lining up seven different sparkling and still waters to compare their impact on different wine styles. It’s the mineral content of the water that has the most significant effect on its flavour and mouth feel, so I selected five wines with diverse and distinctive mineral textures of their own, reflective of the unique geologies on which they are grown:
- De Sousa Cuvée des Caudalies Blanc de Blancs Brut NV, one of the most pronounced expressions of the chalk soils of Champagne,
- Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2009, from the stark slate of the Clare Valley,
- Pierro Chardonnay 2012 from Margaret River’s sandy gravels,
- Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2011 from the gravels of the Martinborough terraces, and
- Wynns Glengyle Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 from the distinctive limestone terra rossa of Coonawarra.
Not surprisingly, the waters demonstrated the most dramatic influence on the delicacy of the more subtle wine styles like Grosset Riesling and, most pronounced of all, champagne. Coonawarra Cabernet, the most intense wine of the line up, was less perturbed, and I would hazard a guess a big Barossa shiraz would show less effect again.
Here are my findings, from my least preferred to my favourite water for matching with wine:
Vichy Catalan Sparkling, Spain
Vichy Catalan contains one of the highest mineralities of any water on the shelves, clocking in at an incredible 2900mg/L of total dissolved solids (25 times the minerality of some waters in my tasting), primarily comprised of bicarbonate, sodium and chlorides. This was the only water that had a pronounced aroma and flavour of powerful bicarbonate and salt. Such distinctive and intrusive minerality wreaks havoc in the presence of wine, totally annihilating the mineral mouth feel of every wine in the line up, heightening the fruit sweetness of the champagne, adding a saltiness to the chardonnay and pinot noir, lending an odd bilginess to the riesling and making the structure of the cabernet grainy and awkward.
San Pellegrino Sparkling, Italy
For one of the most popular waters on restaurant tables, I expected San Pellegrino to perform better. On its own I didn’t mind it, to be honest. It comes in at less than half of the minerality of the Vichy Catalan (1109mg/L) but with a very different mineral make up, here largely sulphates and calcium. I like its chalky mouth feel but its bubbles are quite large and there is a subtle saltiness on the finish that lets it down a little. Its effect on the wines was disappointing, slightly dulling the fruit vibrancy and lending a suggestion of saltiness in every one of the varieties. Perhaps this is why the Italians themselves don’t drink much San Pellegrino?
Evian Still, France
On its own, Evian showed the least purity of the waters, with a slight grubby earthiness and a subtle hardness on the back palate, perhaps a consequence of its mega production volume, or simply a reflection of the highest nitrate content of any of the waters in my tasting. Its total minerality is relatively low (357mg/L), comprised largely of bicarbonate. It dulled the minerality in the champagne and made the palate flatter, rounder and more fleshy, attenuating the high notes of the fruit, like listening to music from the next room with the door closed. It had a subtle dulling effect on the minerality of the riesling, but didn’t perturb the chardonnay, pinot noir or cabernet.
Badoit Sparkling, France
For its high minerality (1200mg/L) this is a classy and very pure and pristine water of neutral flavour, very fine minerality and tiny bubbles, whose high bicarbonate content did nothing to diminish the champagne, chardonnay or cabernet. A great water for drinking on its own, though it did slightly soften the acidity of the riesling and lend a subtle graininess to the tannins of the pinot noir.
Filtered tap water, Brisbane
It’s low in minerals, has a slight hardness to the finish and does not deliver nearly the mouth feel and sheer joy of a great mineral water, but the fact remains: average Brisbane tap water run through a supermarket filter had zero effect on any of the wines, making this the surprise recommendation of my tasting. Of course, filtration is the key as chlorine obliterates wine.
Antipodes Sparkling and Still, New Zealand
So low in mineral content (just 120mg/L) that it can’t actually be labelled as mineral water in some countries, Antipodes is an effortlessly light, bright and graceful water of clean purity and very nearly neutral acid balance. Its minerality is comprised predominantly of silica (quartz) which lends no mineral flavour but only a subtle, crystalline texture to its mouth feel, so fine that it that evokes the sensation of rubbing ground glass or ground quartz between my fingers. The sparkling Antipodes showed a little more tang than the still version, a natural effect of carbonation. Best of all, both had zero effect on any of the wines, allowing each to express its minerality articulately.
In these days when elegance and delicacy are prized in our food and our wines, it stands to reason that the most seamless match is achieved with a water low in minerality.
Since 2014 I have chosen Antipodes as the exclusive mineral water of my Taste Champagne events, where I aim to create the optimum conditions for discerning media, wine trade and consumers to assess more than 100 champagnes.
If you’re interested in reading more about water, find a copy of Fine Waters: A connoisseur’s guide to the world’s most distinctive bottled waters by Michael Mascha.