It's cheaper than wine. You don't have to age it. You can serve it with ice in any old kind of glass and chug-a-lug it while driving. It goes equally well with lamb and seafood and is the ideal after-dinner drink. And you'll never get a hangover from it.

I'm talking about water, the clear, unflavored sort, sometimes infused with tiny titillating bubbles. It's the world's most enduring refreshment. Anyone on a beach under the August sun knows the potable allure of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, dancing in cool molecular courtship. By comparison, Cha~teau Pe'trus is bilge.

We take water for granted when, in fact, we should be more mindful of what goes into our morning coffee than what goes into our cellars. We buy futures in bordeaux and California cabernet when we should be investing in politicians willing to protect the future of the aquifers. American ground water is full of pollutants -- but that's another story.

Taste is the concern here. Most drinking water is doctored with appropriate anti-bacterial concoctions that cannot be described as discreet. Anyone who has tasted Washington's faucet water can attest to that.

Let them drink Perrier. There are worse fates in summer than Perrier -- and some better ones. Perrier has become the generic representative of all that's clear, bubbly, enlightened and non-alcoholic. The simple statement "I'll have a Perrier" may get you anything from seltzer to citrus-flavored pop nowadays. While the spritz certainly has its place, Perrier's bubbles are a bit overwhelming. I have always found it difficult to believe that all that exuberance comes naturally from a hole in the ground. But the people who bottle Perrier insist that it does, and sell it for about 80 cents for 23 ounces.

"Authorized by Decree/Emperor Napoleon III," reads the Perrier label. But royalty, it seems, is to European mineral water what professional athletes are to lite beer. "By Special Warrant Purveyor to H.M. the King of Sweden and H.M. the Queen of Denmark," says the fine print on a bottle of Ramlo sa, a sparkling mineral water from Ha lsingborg, Sweden. It costs slightly more than Perrier, tastes about the same and has the prettiest label on the shelf.

From West Germany comes Apollinaris, "The Queen of Table Waters." No royal decree here, but the water contains minerals that supposedly replace those washed away by drinking less nutritious liquids -- such as spritzers or kir. Minerals in the earth affect the taste of Apollinaris, and the minerals under Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler are apparently just fine, although the water lacks verve. A 34-ounce bottle costs about $1.60.

Evian, the "natural spring water from the French Alps," has no carbonation and only 5 milligrams of sodium per liter -- which makes it more or less salt-free. There are few better thirst quenchers, and none less showy -- but then who wants a dramatic glass of water? A 1.5-liter bottle -- about 52 ounces -- costs about $1.60.

The Swiss ship us some of their prize mineral water, Swiss Altima. It costs about $1.70 a liter. If you think that's pricey, consider the fact that the people of Heidiland, Graubu nden, have been drinking it for 450 years. The label boasts that "its high mineral content . . . the light natural carbonation and the absolute purity as a result of 18 year filtration deep in the center of the Swiss Alps make it what it has always been . . . A GIFT FROM NATURE."

Despite all this hype and history, I rank Swiss Altima well below San Pellegrino, "from the famous source in the Italian Alps." The label ingenuously calls San Pellegrino sparkling natural mineral water and also admits that carbonation is added. No matter. San Pellegrino has a presence of its own, though one difficult to describe (Great granite nose? Long limestone finish?). All I can say with certainty is that it is more pleasing than most of the continental competition. A 25-ounce bottle costs $1.30.

Some American ground water is just as good as the European kingly varieties. Vittel, for instance, from Bartlett Springs, Calif., has great body and refreshing vitality and costs only $1.50 for a 42-ounce bottle.

Crystal Geyser, from the Napa Valley, wets the whistle for about $1 for 28 ounces, carbonation added. For the same price, you can get Saratoga, from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., courtesy of Anheuser-Busch. I think it's better, and it makes a refreshing substitute for Perrier. Saratoga is available in many restaurants, is quite lively and tastes of nothing at all -- high praise indeed for water. ::