Next time, skip your usual bottle and wet your whistle with a worthier one. Alex Shoumatoff reports on how to tell the real thing from just plain old H2O

John Lawton

The French are and always will be fussy. About smells. About food. About clothing. The very essence of a particularly Gallic kind of charm, this fastidiousness serves two functions: it elevates the mundane to the level of art and immediately puts ignorant outsiders in their place. So it should come as no surprise that in France even water is not a simple matter. Not at all. Yet, I confess, I was caught off guard.

My first real encounter with the distinctions among various eaux minérales occurred two years ago, during a meal at the restaurant Louis XV in the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo. Chef Alain Ducasse is the only practitioner of the culinary arts whose restaurants have collectively earned eight stars from the famously incognito critics of Michelin. Ducasse is known for blending tastes, thereby awakening ambrosial new ones; his sommelier, the incomparable Noël Bajor, complements and enhances these flavors with the perfect wines, chosen from more than 350 vintages in the hotel's kilometer-long, 250,000-bottle cellar. That's to be expected. What isn't is the attention Ducasse pays to the humblest of accompaniments: water.

On the restaurant's water list are no fewer than seven brands of flat and 12 of gazeuse, or sparkling. The sparkling are intrinsically more attention-grabbing, more seductive, and thus more deserving of close examination. Here I encountered my first Châteldon, the Dom Pérignon of eaux gazeuses, which comes from a small spring in the village of Châteldon in the Puy-de-Dôme region of the Auvergne. So small is Châteldon's production that the water is available only in France, and only at select restaurants. (A liter bottle goes for about $6.50 at Louis XV.)

As with wine, there is a hierarchy of quality among bottled waters. But while oenology is a crowded field, the science of "eauology," as it might be called, is still in a primitive state. Yet a bottle of water is almost a mandatory accessory in a place like Los Angeles, and Colette, the chic department store in Paris, has a water bar that carries 90 brands of bottled water. How to tell them apart?

Responding to the call of civic duty, I began to read up on eaux gazeuses and to seek out, and expose my taste buds to, as many brands as I could. First, let me outline a few basic facts. The difference between spring and mineral water--eau de source and eau minérale--is that spring water contains fewer than 500 mineral parts per million TDS (total dissolved solids). "Natural" means the water comes from an underground source, not necessarily a spring, that emerges at the surface. There are very few sources of naturally carbonated water. Châteldon is one. The largest in the world is Perrier, in Vergèze in the south of France. But neither is completely naturally carbonated anymore. Both have their own gas reintroduced after it has been removed to purge the water of iron and potentially pathogenic oligo-éléments (trace minerals) and to give the bottled product carbonic consistency.

Châteldon was the water of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Starting in 1650, it was brought by mule to the court at Versailles. Fagon, the court doctor, eulogized the waters, saying, "[They] will cure His Majesty sometimes, will often alleviate his distress, and will comfort him always." Châteldon's bubbles are so fine that they break almost imperceptibly on the roof of your mouth, like the egg membranes of double-o beluga. As Bajor, Ducasse's sommelier, explained to me, the water is low in sodium and "pure as crystal. It has good equilibrium. It's harmonious. There is no agressivité." By comparison, Perrier and San Pellegrino, the sparkling waters most often encountered in high-end American restaurants and markets, can taste coarse, almost vulgar.

Badoit is, in the opinion of many, including me, the most superior generally available gazeuse in France--the poor man's Châteldon. It has the same sort of bubble discretion. But, sadly, it's sold only in France. Évian, which bought Badoit in 1966, could make a killing selling it to the tens of thousands of American water aficionados ready to trade up. The only gazeuse I've encountered in my travels that has the finesse of Châteldon is the Brazilian São Lourenço, whose bubbles are even less perceptible.

FAITH IN THE HEALING PROPERTIES OF WATER goes back to ancient Greece, though the industry of bottling spring and mineral water did not take off until the mid 19th century, when spas also enjoyed a renaissance. Badoit started up in 1837; by 1894, 15 million bottles had been sold. Vichy began in 1853, and between 1861 and 1865, it was the official spa of Napoleon III and his court. The spa at Contrexéville in the Vosges attracted the shah of Persia, Queen Isabella of Spain, and Barons Adolphe and Arthur de Rothschild. Évian was largely unknown until 1789, when the Duke of Savoy ordered official bottling and started a hotel with a casino (the Hôtel des Bains). A million and a half bottles were sold in 1895 alone. That same year Vittel, also in the Vosges, with its own Grand Hôtel since 1863, sold 950,000 bottles. The Perrier spring, whose large bubbles burst as the water gushes to the surface, was named for Dr. Louis Perrier, who, as a scientist, was given the rights to it in 1898 and within 10 years was selling 7.5 million bottles annually. Most of it was exported to London and New York.

In the late 20th century bottled water came into its own. There was an explosion in consumption, owing to the degradation of tap water, the development of the plastic bottle, and clever promotion. Italy is the world's greatest per-capita consumer of both flat and sparkling; the biggest seller there is San Pellegrino. France comes in a close second. Its eaux gazeuses (after Perrier and Badoit, Saint-Yorre sells the most) command 20 percent of the domestic water market. The French gazeuse scene lags behind the German one because the French government did not allow the country's natural waters to be carbonated until 1989.

The top German brands are Gerolsteiner and Überkingen. A friend of mine who lives in Pacific Palisades swears by Gerolsteiner, which she buys at Trader Joe's, a cheap gourmet supermarket, for 99 cents a bottle. We were dining at a restaurant that had only Crystal Geyser, an unexceptional American gassed-up product, when she started to sing the praises of this naturally sparkling mineral water, "bottled and carbonated with its own natural gas at source Gerolstein since 1888," as its label proclaims. The label continues tantalizingly: "the purity and rich mineral content of this water comes naturally from deep down in Gerolstein's volcanic rock."

IN MY PURSUIT OF THE EAUOLOGICAL, I drank my way through the water lists at three Alain Ducasse restaurants. At Alain Ducasse in the Hôtel du Parc in Paris, I lined up its six gazeuses and, with Perrier as a control, took detailed notes on their effects, revisiting Châteldon ("still the champagne of natural bubbly," I wrote) and ruminatively swilling the effervescent Italian Ferrarelle. I sampled three excellent gazeuses at Ducasse's new, avant-garde restaurant in Monte Carlo, Bar & Boeuf: the German Selters, the Irish Tipperary, and the Swedish Ramlösa. They're all a cut above Pellegrino, but not top-shelf.

Finally I had a tasting in the Hôtel de Paris's cave, the very room where Prince Rainier and Princess Grace used to hold private dinners for Winston Churchill, David Niven, and other discriminating friends. Taking little sips, swirling our water appreciatively in a crystal glass, and expectorating into a bronze spittoon, Bajor and I drank 20 different brands of gazeuse--not only the ones on the Louis XV list, but ones Bajor is considering--and compared our reactions.

Bajor, who is constantly on the lookout for new waters, has the most verbally developed eauological sensibility that I have yet to encounter. We cracked open a bottle of Hildon, which touts itself as "an English natural mineral water of exceptional taste" and is gently carbonated and sodium-free. As with Châteldon, the bubbles are very fine, "a multitude of microbulles," pronounced Bajor. "The effect is fleeting, like rain. It doesn't last in your mouth." Hildon's "mouth" is drier than Châteldon's, almost like . . . aspirin. A few weeks later at a Los Angeles restaurant I ran into Hildon again and was more favorably impressed.

Bajor described the Italian Roccia Viva, from the San Bernardo spring, as "piquant. The bulle is not present en premier bouche but à fin de bouche." He found the Amélie La Reine, from France's Jura Mountains and bottled since 1639, "bizarre." According to him, "It has an almost sweetish aspect. Then the taste of the rock, the freshness of the Alps, lasts for a long time." Decante spring water, from Conwy, North Wales, was similar to Perrier and San Pellegrino: "No balance. The gas is too present, too dominant, enfin, grossier." But another Welsh sparkler, Ty Nant, packaged in attractive blue or red glass bottles, has "more consistency and is exemplary of its type. It has structure." Ty Nant has been available for some years at New York's Dean & Deluca, and (at $6 a bottle) the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. It's probably the best gazeuse you can find in the United States at the moment. The Italian Sacramore is a close contender. Sadly, I haven't run into Surgiva, which in Bajor's opinion is "discreet like Châteldon, the most subtle intermediary between gaseous and flat" available in Europe.

Two final points. You should start your meal with a flat water, and get into the gazeuse only after the main course, whose heavier food could benefit from a digestif--in which the squab, shall we say, is ready to be dégraissé with a little Châteldon. If you drink eau gazeuse throughout the meal, you'll just be bloated. Second, they all go flat by the end of the meal. The average sparkling water, once decanted, lasts no longer than the average acte d'amour. Which only heightens the fugitive rush, the quixotic mystique, of these tantalizing fluids.

ALEX SHOUMATOFF, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, is at work on his 11th book, a multigenerational saga of his Rwandan wife's family.