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All Virgins Are Not Alike,
Even Extra Virgins can be Flawed

Tasting and Thoughts on Olive Oils

By Kyle Phillips

In October, its harvest time for olives
It's not just the world of wine that's moving fast. In Europe growers are already getting ready for the harvest of olives.

The Fattoria di Morello ( is a pretty estate on the flank of Monte Morello, he mountain northwest of Florence that Florentines use as an impromptu weather service (Se Monte Morello Mette il Cappello, Fiorentin Prende L'Ombrello -- If Monte Morello Dons his Hat, Florentines grab their Umbrellas).

Rather than make wine, they have about 15,000 olive trees and make an excellent oil eagerly sought out by connoisseurs the world over. They also organize an annual conference entitled Incontro con l'Olio Nuovo, Meeting the New Oil, which examines the relationships between terroir and technological advancements in the production of quality olive oil.

According to their statistics, 90% of the world's olive groves are in the Mediterranean Basin, primarily in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Tunisia, and that 60% of the oil produced is of European origin. The per capita consumption in Greece is 20 kilos (this is about 20 liters), in Italy it's 12, though more oil is consumed because the population is higher, and Spain is catching up with Italy; in other parts of the world consumption is considerably lower -- 400 g/person -- but increasing: per capita consumption has doubled worldwide.

Is Extravirgin always the real McCoy?
It also turns out that much of what the rest of the world consumes is funneled through Italian olive oil processing plants that procure from a variety of sources, mix, and resell.

Unfortunately, a huge percentage of this oil is extravirgin, in other words, its acidity is less than 1% and it has been tasted by a panel of experts who (presumably) say it's free from obvious defects. But though extravirgin oil is supposed to be the best, it varies tremendously in price, from 3 to 30 Euros/liter (in Italian supermarkets), and it's quite obvious that what costs 3 Euros is going to be very different from what costs 30.

The former will be made primarily from imported oils, cut as an industrialist sees fit, and will likely be quite bland, whereas the latter will, one hopes, be made from olives picked in single estate groves somewhere in Italy -- most likely Tuscany, though Umbria, Liguria, and Lake Garda are also famed for their oils, and likely be quite flavorful.

something is seriously amiss when two very different products are being sold with the same name: Consumers, unless they have gone to the trouble of studying a product, largely base their selection on price. Many will be unhappy with the cheap stuff, and will wonder why they should bother to fork over for the more expensive oils, since the labels say they're the same thing : extravirgin olive oil.

The obvious solution would be to tighten the criteria an oil need meet to qualify as extravirgin -- there would be a lot more virgin oil, which is perfectly adequate for cooking, and only what really is superior, and is best used as a condiment, would be extravirgin.

Alas, any attempt to demote cheap extravirgin oil to virgin status would meat with tremendous political resistance on a pan-European scale, and therefore the more practical solution would likely be to create something superior to extravirgin.

Oil-making, an art as complex as winemaking.
According to the Italian Marco Mugelli, a world-renowned expert on olive management and olive oil production, olive oil extraction is a low-yield proposition: The best one can do is about 18% (a kilo of olives yield 180 g of oil), and this with techniques that allow oxidation of the oil during the pressing -- a significant part of the oil in an olive is trapped between membranes composed of sugars, and to free it the olive presser oxidizes the sugars, and as a result exposes the oil to oxidation.

There is another technique that doesn't collect this "trapped" oil; since there's no oxidation, the resulting oil is distinctly superior (Mr. Mugelli says the two kinds are not comparable), but the yield is so much lower that the technique is not used.

The problem with the high production philosophy, Mr. Mugelli says, is that though the oil can be of high quality if the olives were picked and handled with care and carefully pressed, the technique masks the differences attributable to different production areas and cultivars.

Globalization of tastes
In other words, just like wine, high quality oils now being made in various parts of the world, for example Chile, Tuscany, and Greece, closely resemble each other.

To drive the point home, the organizers of the conference called a recess during which they

set up a blind tasting featuring oils from Tuscany (Fattoria di Morello), Sardinia, Spain, Puglia, Greece, Chile, California, and Argentina. One was slightly off, but I found the rest to be quite good and quite similar, to the point that I would have been guessing had I tried to say where they were from. I am not a trained oil taster, but a number journalists and agronomists specializing in olive oil had a

tough time too, including Mr. Mugelli who did identify Spain because he consults for the producer and recognized the cultivar.

It was a sobering experience, and provides a fine argument for adopting the low-yield technique for the best oils, which would therefore be much richer and more distinctive. One would have to establish a new classification to distinguish them from the current extravirgin oils, but it would be worth it.

Buy olive oil with care, and remember that you get what you pay for.
The cheap stuff that comes in a 5-liter screw-cap can is going to be uninspiring, and though you may want to cook with it, you will likely not want to drizzle it over your soup or salad because it won't contribute those wonderful olive oil aromas and flavors one gets from better oils.

When buying quality oil don't overlook a (relatively) conveniently priced local olive oil if you live in an area where oil is produced -- if it was properly made, our tasting showed that it will rival just about anything imported. And if you live in a non-producing area, don't feel you must buy the most expensive European import to enjoy olive oil. Taste the various brands available with an open mind, and you may find yourself preferring something from a less renowned area that's less expensive.

Never tasted olive oil?
Like with wine you begin with the color: Intensity, hue, which varies from green to gold, and transparency, which varies from cloudy (not necessarily a defect) to quite clear. And you continue with the aromas, gently shaking the glasses and sniffing deeply.

As is the case with evaluating a wine, you identify the primary aromas and then concentrate on the secondary aromas that emerge as you continue to sniff; in tasting an olive oil, I was told, the aromas

play a greater part than they do in a wine, and I tend to agree.

Once you are done sniffing, you taste -- just a drop, initially on the tip of the tongue, and you work it around the rest of your palate, analyzing the tastes and textures you perceive. A sip of water to clear the palate, and on to the next oil.

So what are you looking for?
Olive oil can display three positive attributes:
Fruitiness -- olive fruit aromas and flavors, also other fruit aromas and flavors
Bitterness -- characteristic of oil from green (unripe) olives
Pungency -- Peppery spice, characteristic of oil made from olives picked at the beginning of the harvest

There are many more defects; these are the major ones:

Riscaldo (heated) -- characteristic of olives that began to ferment before they were pressed; the effect is similar to brined
Mustiness -- moldy aromas and flavors from olives that were stored where it was damp, and got moldy.
Muddiness -- a flavor characteristic of oils that remained in contact overlong with the olive pulp after pressing
Winey/Acidic -- The oil has overtones reminiscent of wine or vinegar. This happens when the olives fermented before pressing, forming acetic acid.
Metallic -- A metallic taste derived form the oil's being in contact with metal surfaces too long during the production phases.
Rancid -- Characteristic aromas and tastes caused by oxidation; it resembles peanut or linseed oil. And these are minor:
Cooked -- this happens when the olives or olive paste were overheated during pressing.
Grass or wood -- characteristic of olives that were dried out (this is a lot of grass; a little is all right).
Coarse -- a dense, chewy sensation found in some oils.
Lubricant -- when the oil brings to mind motor oil or diesel fuel.
Vegetation water -- a flavor the oil acquires if it's not separated from the water component soon enough after pressing.
Briny -- from olives that were preserved in brine
Dirt -- earthiness from olives that sat on the ground
Wormy -- from olives that were infected with the larvae of the olive fly
Cucumber -- typical of oils that have been stored too long, especially in cans

The Grades of Olive Oil

Extravirgin Olive Oil
The best, produced exclusively through cold pressing. The maximum allowed acidity level is 1% and it must pass the examination of a tasting commission with a score of 6.5 or above What to use it for? As a condiment, over salads (with a little vinegar), drizzled into hearty soups at table, to make bruschetta, (sparingly) in marinades and so on.
Virgin Olive Oil
A step down from Extravergine; its acidity can be up to 2%, and it must receive a score of 5.5 or above from the tasting commission. What to use it for? If it's good, it can be put to the same uses as the above; you can also use it for cooking.
Pure Olive Oil
This is produced industrially by treating oils that are too acidic or suffer from other defects, and adding some virgin oil for balance. The maximum allowed acidity is 1.5%, and there is no taste test. What to use it for? Primarily cooking.
Olive Oil
This is produced by treating the paste from the first pressing (called sansa) with solvents to extract the remaining oil and then adding some virgin oil for balance. The maximum allowed acidity is 1.5% and again no tasting panel. What to use it for? Cooking

In short, there are lots of problems to look out for, and many are more common than you might think. Indeed, I attended a comparison of artisanal and mass-produced commercial oils a few years ago, and the master taster found defects, in particular brininess, in almost all the commercial oils.

However, when it all works, and what you find is positive, the next step is to break out the bread to make bruschetta, together with a bowl of freshly sliced vegetables for pinzimonio (give each guest a dipping bowl to fill with oil, seasoned to taste with salt and pepper, and include bell peppers, artichoke hearts, celery, carrots, and whatever else you like that's firm enough to be dipped among the vegetables).

Follow the antipasto with a bowl of minestrone or pasta e fagioli drizzled with a little more oil, and follow the first course with grilled spare ribs, served with plain white beans and chickpeas, both drizzled with oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. Who could ask for more?

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