A surprising new drink is competing with wine to become the Frenchman's favorite drink: mineral water. The French, of course, have always consumed pure water. But in the last 20 years a fitness mania has swept the country, and consumption has soared. France today boasts more than 1,200 mineral springs producing some 100 brands.
``Fitness buffs are natural clients for drinking mineral water,'' says Philippe Gangloff, owner of the Parisian health spa, Club Nicolo. ``Today, people work out more and tend to quench their thirst with a bottle of water, not beer.''
Water has become big business in this country. Last year's sales figures topped 3 billion liters. Some 551 million liters were exported. This makes France No. 1 worldwide in mineral water production, consumption, export, and bottled-water technology.
``The French,'' says Francoise Lambroschini of the Chambre Syndicale des Eaux Min'erales, ``select their mineral waters with the same care as they do their cheeses.''
French attention to water dates back to the Romans, whose armies, during their rule of Gaul 2,000 years ago, discovered the springs. Vestiges of Roman spas can still be found at Badoit, Vittel, and Perrier.
In modern times, interest in mineral spas found favor with royal courts during the 17th century. Spa-going peaked in the late 1800s and became especially popular among French colonists returning from stays in poorer, less sanitary parts of the world.
Urbanization has helped to develop a greater demand for bottled water in France in the 20th century. Many Parisians, for instance, refuse to drink from the tap. They abhor chlorine which is obligatory in treating city water.
An additional plus for the bottled-water industry was the replacing of glass with plastic containers. Consumers appear to prefer the lighter, disposable packaging and are buying more units as a result.
Not until 1968, however, did water companies begin making huge financial investments in their water campaigns. Three parent groups, Perrier and its major competitors, Evian and Vittel (which combined, reap a total of $635 million a year), now control 95 percent of the market.
Perrier, of course, has triumphed in the United States market with its bulbous green bottles. The word ``Perrier'' is virtually synonymous with ``bottled water'' in the US. Perrier, Vittel, and Evian have all purchased springs in the US and planted themselves on American soil. Many regional water purveyors have cropped up in the US to capitalize on this market phenomenon.
To illustrate just how far bottled water has come, spa owner Gangloff opened France's and the world's first water bar last September. Located on the lower floor of Club Nicolo, Gangloff's bar serves more than 100 varieties of the world's choicest mineral waters, including those from Paraguay, Bulgaria, Hungary, Morocco, Sweden, and Algeria.