PALATE PALS: Bottled waters, still and sparkling, set the scene for enjoying wine.
Water is integral to almost everything we do in the food and beverage business. It is the essential element in every alcoholic beverage, every mug of coffee and every cup of tea. Water is served before meals, with meals and after meals. It is the principal ingredient of every mixed drink and glass of beer. The importance of water is universal, and yet some restaurants have integrated water programs, while others fail to see its potential.
For instance, the surging popularity of super-premium spirits has ratcheted up the importance bottled spring and mineral waters play behind the bar. "Marketing top-shelf spirits necessitates having your act together when it comes to stocking the appropriate waters," says Paige Seager, principal in Next Level, a marketing and promotion agency for the beverage alcohol industry. "Aficionados understand that bottled waters enhance the experience of drinking world-class whiskeys, tequilas and aged rums. These days knowing which bottled waters to stock is every bit as important as knowing which malts to feature."
Seager further explains that water is ingrained in the entirety of the spirits' ritual. A swallow or two of water is the best way fully prepare your palate. It awakens the taste buds and allows you to better perceive the flavors present in the spirit. When measured by volume, however, water's contribution to the appreciation of spirits amounts to little more than a splash. Yet that splash of spring or mineral water accomplishes a great deal, namely hastening the release of the bouquet and developing the spirit's full range of flavors. Without the water, you're getting only half the show.
According to Water Codex published by San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna, "Water carries out the essential task of softening, completing or enriching everything that is tasted by the palate before and after a sip of water." Simply put, water has the ability to cleanse the palate and improve the flavor of whatever it is that you drink afterwards.
Water also enhances the enjoyment of wine. The process of pairing a wine with a complementary water is referred to as harmonizing. Heavy food and wines high in tannins and acid can overshadow a water lighter in body. Conversely, a heavy, full-bodied water may overpower certain lighter wines.
For instance, Italian S. Pellegrino Sparkling Natural Mineral Water is a pristine sparkling water with an abundance of fine bubbles that leave the taste buds fresh and tingling and a mild acidity that stimulates salivation. It's a water with a full body and a persistent and satisfying finish. San Pellegrino's soul mate is Acqua Panna Natural Spring Water, a light-bodied, still water containing only trace minerals. It has a fresh, delicate flavor, soft, velvety body and an impeccably clean finish.
From a sommelier's point of view, a full-bodied water should optimally be paired with full-bodied wines rich in tannins and high in acid. The two liquids harmonize and act in synergy with the other. Furthermore, rich and flavorful foods should be paired with water and wines that possess the same characteristics.
Balancing the flavors and characteristics of water, wine and food is fundamental to fine dining. The codex goes on to recommend pairing a light-bodied, still water with low residual minerals—such as Acqua Panna—with soft, suave wines with moderate alcohol and subtle aromas, and foods light flavors. Conversely, food and wines that are complex and have full, persistent flavors and aromas should be matched with a slightly acidic water with moderate effervescence—such as San Pellegrino.
Water Codex II is a helpful treatise on harmonizing water, food and wines. The work of Dr. Claudia Moriondo and sommelier Guiseppe Vaccarini, the book is an absolute must for the restaurant professional and available through Nestle Waters of North America, importer of Acqua Panna and San Pellegrino.
Robert Plotkin is a judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the author of the 5th edition of The Bartender's Companion: The Original Guide to American Cocktails and Drinks.