The world of olive oil is a serious one (really, there's even an olive oil mafia!). In Italy particularly, the kingdom of fine extra virgin olive oils, there are tasting schools that produce oleologists (professional olive oil tasters), consortiums that carefully supervise the production and quality of the liquid gold, and there is even a huge olive oil international black market. A lot more goes into the process of this ingredient than just pressing and bottling, so, in this maze of first press, cold press, varietals, Italian, Spanish, Moroccan or Argentine, how do you know which are the best olive oils?
There is no definite answer to this elusive question. The best way to think of olive oil is to compare it to wine. Depending on the olive varietal and the terroir (the characteristics of the land, microclimates, acidity/alkalinity of the soil, amongst many other factors) of the groves, olive oil can be floral, herbaceous, dense, light, aromatic, acid bitter, and the list of adjectives can go on. Olive oil is complex, full of flavor nuances, which will depend as much on the type of olive that is use as on the amount of rain that fell prior to harvest. There is no one brand or varietal of olive oil that’s recognized as the best, much as there is no best wine.
And that’s because olive oil is a matter of taste. Much like some people prefer the intensity of a Cabernet, while some gravitate towards the lightness of a Merlot, some people will prefer a robust olive oil from an early harvest, while other will go for the mellowness of a late harvest olive oil. There are over thousands different varietals of olive cultivars that are used for olive oil, and most of the time their use will depend on their origin, and most olive oils today come from Italy, Spain, France and Greece. Picual, Manzanilla, Arbequina and Hojiblanca come from Spain; Taggiasca, Frantoio, and Moraiolo come Italy, while Greece is known for its Koroneiki olive oils.
Each individual olive oil will have a distinct flavor, color and bouquet, so the best way to find the best olive oil for you is to taste it. And most of the time, you’ll find you’ll like several different types, because they’ll match different uses best. But there ARE certain things that you can look for to ensure you’re getting the best quality olive oil:
- Current harvest olive oils are better than older harvest, because olive oil does not get better with age; it’s better fresh So, look at the production date. The olive oil harvest in the northern hemisphere happens in the fall. So if you’re buying in June, you want to buy the oil produced in the fall of the previous year.
- Look for the region. There’s a big, big olive oil black market, with many companies bottling different types of oil and labeling it Product of Italy or Product of Spain. To make sure you get a true, unadulterated extra virgin olive oil, look for the particular region where the olive oil comes from. Serious producers will give you that information. If they don’t, take a pass.
- Look for the specific olive varietals or cultivars. Again, with the black market problem, you want an olive oil label that is a specific as possible. If the producer hasn’t included the type of cultivar used (Picual, Arbequina, etc.), chances are this is a blend of different, lesser quality oils from different provenances.