SANBWA’s guide to the taste of bottled waters

Bottled water, referred to as ‘packaged’ water in South African legislation, is appreciated not only as a calorie-free, healthy alternative to other packaged non-alcoholic beverages, but as a versatile companion to fine dishes, wine, coffee, brandies and whiskeys, etc. Depending on the mineral composition of the bottled water, as well as the presence or absence of ‘bubbles’, it can highlight and even enhance taste nuances.

Together with tasters from SASA and SACA, we set out to explore the organoleptic characteristics of bottled waters available in South Africa with a view to providing a guide – not a set of rules – about which waters could satisfy certain culinary requirements.

‘Bouquet’ is the word used by beverage tasters when referring to the ‘nose’ or ‘smell’ of a beverage, while palate refers to the ‘taste’ or ‘flavour’. The word ‘mouthfeel’ refers to how a beverage ‘feels’ in the mouth, mostly as a result of the interaction between ‘texture’ and ‘weight’, and can vary between still and carbonated versions of water from the same source.

Our tasting panel confirmed that waters bottled from sources in South Africa, as well as imported waters found in the country, are mostly neutral with respect to smells and flavours. By contrast, considerable differences were found when it came to mouthfeel.

This obviously means that water will have little to no impact on the beverages or meals it is consumed with when it comes to aroma, but a much larger impact on the flavour profile or mouthfeel.

If you are consuming a strongly-flavoured and hearty stew, the type of water you chose will probably not matter. But, if you are consuming a far more delicately spiced and textured dish, or add a splash of water to an expensive whiskey or creating a coffee from hard-to-source beans, then the type of water you use can most definitely influence your experience.”

The SANBWA panel tasted sparkling and still member and imported waters, as well as several from non-members, and categorised them as follows:

Still waters

Gentle, refined
Waters that are soft with low minerality (salt) content often present as gentle and refined when we drink them. They are often the most refreshing to drink on their own to quench a thirst, and are very good to use when making or mixing with another beverage – such as coffee in a coffee machine or when adding water to whiskey or brandy – because they do not impact the flavour profile of those beverages.
AquaBella, aQuellé Franschhoek, Bon Aqua, Cape Aqua, Chamonix, Oryx Aqua

Refreshing, satisfying
These waters have a slightly higher mineral content, and therefore more mouthfeel than those categorised as gentle and refined. They may also, depending on the mineral composition, present as slightly more savoury than those waters. They are refreshing and satisfying, and ideal ‘anytime’ beverages – solo to rehydrate and energise you, before or with a meal.
Bené, Ceres Spring Water, Di Bella Spring Water, La Vie De Luc, Thirsti, Valpré

Full, smooth
Waters with a high mineral content have greater mouthfeel and viscosity, which some people describe as a slightly oily texture, and this makes then appear full and smooth. Depending on the level of minerality, they can also have a slight salinity and, in some cases, this gives them quite a unique flavour profile. While some people will enjoy them with food, their obvious individuality means that they are mostly consumed solo, and probably not as a mixer with another beverage.
Aqua Panna, aQuellé KwaZulu-Natal, Evian, Nestlé Pure Life

Sparkling waters

Soft, graceful
These waters have very low levels of minerality (salt) and carbonation. This means that the bubbles are delicate, and barely felt on the tongue and in the mouth. They could be described as being refined, or soft and graceful. This mellow nature makes them perfect meal companions because they clean the palate in a gentle way. The enhanced acidity from the carbonation is recognised as a classic palate cleanser.
AquaBella, aQuellé, Valpré

Spirited, refreshing
With a slightly higher mineral content and racy, effervescent bubbles that persist for a long time in the glass, these waters are spirited and refreshing. Sometimes, this reviving characteristic is exacerbated by a slight salinity and bright acidity making them perfect for many occasions, solo or with food.
Cape Aqua, Chamonix, La Vie De Luc, San Pellegrino

Irrepressible, revitalising
These are waters with high levels of carbonation which, in combination with an elevated mineral content, can create an irrepressible and flavoursome mouthful. They do refresh and stimulate and are most often drunk on their own or used as a ‘cocktail mixer’.
Bené, Ceres Spring Water, Nestlé Pure Life, Thirsti

Download the SANBWA taste wheel here.