Water - in the best possible taste

Geneva wants to make sure its water tastes good

By law, Swiss tap water must be of high quality, but the state water company in Geneva wants to ensure it tastes good too - by employing tasters.

This content was published on September 2, 2002

Although some big foreign utilities and commercial bottled water companies employ tasters, the move is the first of its kind in Switzerland.

The Geneva authorities say that whereas in the past people used to drink tap water out of necessity, now they drink it for pleasure - and are more demanding.

"This is a way of meeting the expectations of the customer," says Dominique Mantegazzi, the chemist who heads the new tasting team at the Industrial Services of Geneva (SIG).

"With regards to the microbiological and chemical content of our water, we meet all the legal criteria. It is perfectly safe to drink," he told swissinfo.

"What we are doing is showing the consumer that it also good to drink."

Systematic tests

Other cantons taste their water, but only after complaints, and none tests the water in its network in such a systematic way.

Geneva, too, receives complaints about the quality of the water. However, nine times out of ten the fault is with poorly maintained installations in the building, which are not the responsibility of SIG, says Mantegazzi.

Around 20 volunteer tasters have been recruited from the ranks of SIG personnel.

Having undergone tests at the Geneva-based scent-manufacturer, Givaudan, they will begin tasting for real this autumn.

Once or twice a month, a tasting team will assemble to taste water taken at random from anywhere in the canton.

They will be looking for - or rather smelling and tasting for - the telltale signs of contamination.

Taste categories

The "flavour" of the water is divided into seven categories: earth-mould, fishy, chemical, medicinal, chlorine-ozone, grassy, and vegetal.

However, taste is subjective, and a group of tasters will never agree on what is the perfect glass of water.

"Some people favour a high mineral content, others prefer much less, " says Mantegazzi.

He argues that a good taster must be able to recognise the key tastes and odours, and be able to describe them with a specialist vocabulary.

A water taster, then, has to educate his palate in much the same way as a wine taster, though the implications of what they detect is different.

"These complexities give wine character. But in water, they show that something is wrong," says Mantegazzi, pointing out that the "faults" of water are often harder to spot than the "characteristics" of wine.

Unsurprisingly, Mantegazzi drinks Geneva tap water most of the time. "I'm only unfaithful when I go to a restaurant. Then I'll drink a bottle of sparkling mineral water," he says.

Mantegazzi says there is a little to choose between the quality of Swiss tap water and bottled mineral water.

However, whereas the public supply has been treated within the past few hours, one can never be sure how the commercial bottles have been stored, and consequently, how the taste has been affected.

swissinfo, Roy Probert

Water tasting brief

The tasting team in Geneva says people have become more demanding about water quality - hence the decision to monitor its taste in a systematic way.

The team will taste water taken at random from anywhere in the canton, and be looking out for telltale signs of contamination.

The tasters acknowledge they will never agree on what is the perfect glass of water, but they say they should be able to recognise the key tastes and odours and to describe them with a specialist vocabulary.

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