...beyond the question, ‘still or sparkling’
APART FROM being the basis for all known life, I have long harboured an interest in the nuances of H2O, visiting Buxton and Vittel’s bottling plants and Bath’s Roman Spa. I was thirsty, therefore, to drink-in the argument of recent ‘Best Sommelier in the World’, Andreas Larsson. The sharp-suited Swede was claiming that sipped in succession with wine, the minerals, texture and acidity of bottled waters could influence its feel and enjoyment. As the attraction celebrated its tenth anniversary, I went along to his ‘San Pellegrino’/‘Acqua Panna’ sponsored masterclass at London’s liquid theme park, ‘Vinopolis’.
Despite criticisms by The Times’ restaurant critic, A.A. Gill, who described it as ‘a great patriotic lie…seductive for fascists and the Soil Association’, with bars taking its name, and a growing interest in sourcing, it has become useful and fashionable to describe mineral water in terms of ‘terroir’ – flavour in geography.
Facing three glasses of water and four of wine, we began by nosing San Pellegrino, drawn from Bergamo limestone. Filled one third full, the stylish glass was thin and stemless, to allow a little warmth to transfer from hand to liquid. Larsson said that this not only helps ‘make scents’ but ‘cold fluids aren’t good for us’ anyway. With the upmost sincerity, he asked the room of journalists, PRs and sommeliers, ‘what comes to mind?’ The aromas seemed so anonymous that I closed my eyes in concentration. When no one answered, he almost blew the word into the air, ‘Purity!’
Thankfully, things became easier on the palate. I noticed bite and acidity at the sides of my tongue, and plenty of sensations from the periodic table. Chalk, calcium, a hint of granite? Romantically, I briefly glimpsed Cartizze Prosecco. And there was a plume of bubbles – the ‘perlage’ – tiny bullets with creamy centres. This being a relatively ‘full-bodied’ style, Larsson advised that it sips best with, and scythes through, beef, risotto and creamy pasta.
Up next, I drew air through sister brand, Panna, an uncarbonated water percolated through the sandstone and clay of the Apennines above Florence. With less acidity, Larsson found its finish shorter, although to me it was much longer: the bubbles of Pellegrino seemed to curtail its own finish. Despite a less expressive minerality, Larsson said this gentler style works in harmony with cuisines where you might drink a nervy Chablis – real carpaccio, oysters on the half shell and white meats like veal. It is a water ideal for ‘maintaining elegant flavours on the palate’.
The final example ‘was not for truffles’, containing humble SE1 Tap. Despite the unfair ploy of serving it lukewarm from a chunky glass, it was clean, bright and firm but the least mineral.
It was by now time to investigate how these waters worked with very different wines. Despite Larsson’s instructions that we must appreciate ‘the style rather than producer’, all four were excellent.
Wine 1: Monte Rosa Franciacorta Prima Cuvée N.V. (85% Chardonnay, P. Bianco; 15% P. Nero; two years on lees). A rich nose of truffle, brioche, with a palate of lime, celery salt and plentiful, pinprick, soft bubbles. Larsson favoured the Panna for its softer acidity and lower mineral content - which didn’t interrupt the wine’s bubbles. Whilst I am no expert in this field (noting that bubble specialists do exist) I found Pellegrino provided the most complimentary exchange. Put simply, when drank in succession, the bubbles flattered one another. With tap, an unlovely hardness prevailed, working against the creamy bubbles.Wine 2: Martellozzo Terre Magre, Friuli ‘08 (Pinot Grigio). A fresh, pear and sherbet scented wine with a pervasive, mineral, oily palate. The San Pellegrino quite obviously restricted aromatic nuances. Larsson preferred the Panna, but it seemed too vague and ‘damp’ for me. Balancing somewhere in between the mineral waters, I thought the tap worked best. Interestingly, few, if any of the other tasters bothered to attempt London water with these wines. Prejudice, perhaps?
It had been an interesting experiment, which could no doubt be related to other drinks, like beer, for example, through a wider range of waters.Wine 3: Sacravite D’Angelo, Basilicata ‘06 (Aglianico). Aromas of dark cherry, and black pepper continued onto an approachable palate with a lick of sweetness and soft tannins. Again, Pellegrino’s bubbles appeared cutting, dissolving tannin and sweetness regrettably fast. Larsson echoed this, ‘full-bodied sparkling waters can become intrusive to a wine taster.’ The Panna cleansed more patiently. But the biggest surprise came on tap, which became distastefully surgical alongside, chemicals being emphasised. The wine being unoaked, I would have liked to have seen a barrel-matured bottle alongside.Wine 4: Château La Rame St. Croix du Mont ‘05 (Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc). An enticing perfume of honey and candy-floss interlaced with a little botrytis. The sweet, nectar-like palate was underpinned by an architectural, strict acidity. Taking a sip of the San Pellegrino after the wine revealed two issues: it was like taking blotter paper to ink and pitching acid against acid. ‘Hardly the match for Château d’Yquem,’ said Larsson. Being the weakest in body, Aqua Panna maintained the sweetness of the wine, whilst the tap took the longest time to dry out its sweetness. Personally, I would avoid cutting its charms with water.
In questions afterwards, Larsson launched an intelligent attempt to counter the campaign by London’s Mayor and the Evening Standard to automatically provide tap water in restaurants on ethical grounds. According to the Mayor’s figures, bottled water can create up to ‘300 times the CO2 emissions per litre in the case of some imported brands’. Larsson responded, ‘it depends how and where we transport it from’, adding that consumers are ‘happy to import other bottled goods, like wine and beer from all over the globe’. He stressed that ‘mineral water is a different product’, often ‘beneficial for digestion.’
Larsson is anti the intrusion of the ‘ice and slice’ in mineral water because they ‘destroy the structure’. He joked, ‘I take my J.D. on ice - not my water.
When I asked him where he had tasted good tap water, I was unsurprised to hear a bias in his answer, ‘my home town of Stockholm – it is incredibly pure.’Incidentally whilst Larsson got into water, or rather ‘tasting bottled water’ late, he has become such a fanatic that if ordering fine wine in a restaurant, for fear of contamination by ‘off odours’, he would refuse to drink tap if ‘that’s all there was.’ Plenty of my friends would agree, albeit for a different reason - they believe that there is already enough water in wine…