Caught at sips: Ralph Kyte-Powell and Huon Hooke at work. Photo: James Brickwood
Australians drink a lot of bottled water. And so does the rest of the world. A new study shows that last year global sales of premium bottled water rose 10 per cent to $12.8 billion despite widespread economic pressures.
But debate rages about the logic of bottled water. Why do Australians spend millions of dollars a year on bottled water - which is much more expensive a litre than petrol - when what comes out of the tap is virtually free? Are we too affluent for our own good?
Or are we lazy, favouring bottled water because we can't be bothered to fill a bottle out of a tap and remember to take it when we go out?
Environmentalists hate it, because it's largely packed in plastic and the empties litter our world, causing grave damage to wildlife. In response, water bottlers are working to reduce the amount of plastic in their bottles.
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect, although a small part of the total market, are the European waters shipped all the way from France or Italy in heavy, bulky glass bottles. In a country where most citizens enjoy a very good standard of tap water, what's going on? Perhaps we are just gullible (any conspiracy theorist worth their salt can tell you Evian spelt backwards is naive!).
The bottled-water market is dominated by Australian waters, but it's in the swank restaurants that expensive, fashionable Italian and French waters can make a significant addition to l'addition. And some waiters are skilled at making the diner feel a cheapskate.
Restaurant staff are educated as to the various uses of different waters. This sharp, fizzy number for cutting through the fat of pork belly; this delicate, still number for after sushi. Some restaurants have gone so far as employing … ahem … a specialist water sommelier.
So The Age's wine reviewer Ralph Kyte-Powell and I sat down together and blind-tasted a range of waters, half of them sparkling and half still, including some of the most famous names, with samples of Sydney and Melbourne domestic tap water thrown in for comparison.
The sparkling waters were far more interesting than the still. We could see more reason to pay good money for a bottle of good sparkling water than we could still water.
As for still water, Melbourne tap water beat almost half of the still bottled entries, making it hard to beat for value.
Sparkling water has two remarkable effects: it's refreshing and it's palate-cleansing. The pick-me-up benefit is probably derived more from the gas than the minerals. When the wraps came off, we weren't surprised at the waters we'd liked best. We probably would have nominated the same brands had we been asked our favourites before the tasting began.
The discovery of the tasting was how well Melbourne tap water stacked up against the bottled still waters. When it comes to value for money, there's no contest. Indeed, it's my belief that if you filter your tap water, it's perfectly good and competitive with most bottled waters. (We acknowledge not all city tap water tastes as good as our samples - e.g. in Melbourne's city centre, I've often had tap water with a repellent musty TCA taint.)
Our chief complaint about the tap waters, especially Sydney's, was a trace of chlorine, which is easily removed by a filter, or by exposing it to sunlight. As professional palates who both enjoy a glass of Italy or France's finest - water, I mean - we are far from cynical when it comes to discussing imported bottled waters. We went into the tasting with open minds.
Water was sourced, and prices obtained, from various retailers.
Antipodes, New Zealand, $4.99 1 litre
A rather salty, effervescent water that didn't impress our fearless tasters. One described its flavour as though ''it had been tipped out of a rusty bucket''. 8/20
San Pellegrino, Italy, $2.99 750ml
Earthy and quite savoury with an even, moderate bubble, San Pellegrino has a smooth, subtle personality with a mineral tang on the finish. Finely balanced in the mouth with attractive texture. 14/20
Galvanina, Italy, $2.49 750ml
Fine in texture, clean tasting and gently bubbling with an appealing light quality. Gluggable. 15/20
San Benedetto, Italy, $2.69 1.5 litres
Like soda water with a coarse bubble. Slightly salty, too gassy. Nothing flash. 8/20
Voss, Norway, $5.49 800ml
Fine foam with a slightly scented ''beach sandy'' mineral aroma. It's pure and crisp. 15/20
Fonteviva, Italy, $2.49 1 litre
A strong, steely mineral aroma leads the way, with a slight hint of sulphide. The flavour is rather dirty and rusty with a coarse finish. 8/20
Capi, Australia, $2.99 750ml
Pleasant sea-breezy aromas introduce a fine, gently bubbling water of lovely purity and softness. Delicacy and finesse in every way. 17/20
Guadianello, Italy, $2.49 1 litre
Mellow in aroma, perhaps due to elevated pH, which may be the reason for its slippery, fat mouthfeel. Low in gas, oily in texture, and neutral in flavour. 11/20
Badoit, France, $3.75 330ml
Water with a superfine, spritzy feel, and lovely, clean mineral flavours. Silky in the mouth, with a dry, textured finish. One of the best. 18/20
Perrier, France, $3.29 750ml
Smells of rusty nails and sulphides, and tastes dirty with hard grip to the finish. 8/20
Ferrarelle, Italy, $1.99 1.25 litres
Like a fresh, salty ocean breeze, this has fine effervescence and a slightly dusty mineral flavour. The aftertaste is rather salty, but it does have some savoury charm. 12/20
Mount Franklin, Australia, $2.34 1.25 litres
Medicinal aromas are not very pleasant, giving a smell one taster identified as ''iodine-like''. The palate has a penetrating chemical flavour, a lemony hint, and a bitter finish. 7/20
Splitrock, Australia, $3.50 330ml
Very gassy and soda-like, neutral in flavour, coarse in texture with high acidity. 8/20
Santa Vittoria, Italy, $1.56 750ml
Gentle bubbles; a clean, neutral aroma; lots of character on the palate with a gently salty minerality. 14/20
Voss, Norway, $4.79 800ml
Fine bubbles frost the glass, giving this water a really inviting appearance. It's clean and quenching in the mouth, with a dry and savoury aftertaste. 16/20
Fiji, Fiji, of course, $1.89 500ml
Both tasters thought this one was ''watery'' - who knows what that means in a water-tasting? That said, it was completely neutral and smooth enough, but there was a coarse aftertaste, which let it down. 9/20
Capi, Australia, $2.99 750ml
This is a smooth water with clean flavours, and the slightest whisper of gas, unusual for a still water. The palate was smooth, with a vague suggestion of caramel-like flavour and a satisfying dry finish. 12/20
Another Bloody Water, Australia, of course, $1.39 600ml
Iodine-like aromas and flavours give a peaty quality to Another Bloody Water that reminded the tasters of peaty malt whisky. Whether you like this character or not is another thing. We decided it was passable. 10/20
Antipodes, New Zealand, $3.29 500ml
Pleasantly quenching and much more appealing than the Antipodes sparkling version, this is a simple, neutral water of good character. 12/20
Santa Vittoria, Italy, $1.79 750ml
There's a slight iodine note to this water and some bitterness in the mouth, but it has pleasant flow and balance. 12/20
Solan de Cabras, Spain, $4.00 550ml
Completely neutral, almost denatured and devoid of character. Not at all minerally, but refreshing, clean and easy to quaff. 13/20
Splitrock, Australia, $3.50 330ml
There seemed to be a chlorine taint in this water with some leathery aromas, and a peppery bite to the flavour. Weird and not very pleasant. 8/20
Evian, France, $2.39 500ml
Salty in aroma, yet refreshing, with quenching texture and an appetising dry finish. 14/20
Mount Franklin, Australia, $2.19 1 litre
Seaweedy, slightly dirty aromas give an off-putting medicinal feel to this water, and the finish is hard and slightly sulphury. 9/20
Snowy Mountain, Australia, $1.39 1 litre
Fragrant and almost floral, this is a delicate, soft water with a quaffable texture. We thought it showed a whisper of plastic taint, which was a pity. Otherwise OK. 12/20
Acqua Panna, Italy, $1.79 500ml
Some volcanic sulphury notes meet the nose with this water, but it does have interest. The mouthfeel is good and there's a pleasant firmness to the palate. 11/20
Pump, New Zealand, $2.88 750ml
A chlorine detergent-like aroma is very off-putting, and made this sample seem unpleasantly tainted. 7/20
Dirty and dusty with a slight hint of chlorine, this was unimpressive. 6/20
Better than some of the hyped brands, this was simple, earthy, clean and quenching. And it costs 0.0024¢ a litre. 11/20