My Five: Favorite Olive Oil Regions

My Five: Favorite Olive Oil Regions 150 150 David Rosengarten

The 2012 olive harvest has begun in Europe…hooray!…and will continue in some European spots through February. Wise producers will send their new oils here quickly…since the dirty little secret of olive oil is that it never is better than on the day it’s pressed! But we’ll discuss this year’s best oils down the road. For now, in preparation for the season…let’s look at the regions that are likely to yield this year’s best oils!

A puzzler, first: is it really possible to say that olive oil regions have distinct characters? Is it really possible to choose favorites?

Indubitably, yes. The same kinds of factors that go into regional consistency of wine also go into regional consistency of olive oil. But olive oil has its own set of analogues.

Let’s look at just one, before we travel the regions: green olives, black olives…which means the whole fascinating subject of ripeness.

As most people know…the same olive, on the same tree, goes from green, to darker shades, finally to dark black when it’s ripe. Pick it green, and you have a fruity, spicy, pungent, peppery olive oil. Pick it black, and you have a rich, golden, buttery oil. There are many stages in between, and many opportunities to blend lots from different degree-of-ripeness batches.

Now here’s the kicker: some regions, for various agricultural reasons, tend to produce more of one kind of oil, be it green-olive oil, or be it black-olive oil. And then…thousands of years of agricultural practice get reinforced by what has become “the local taste.” Regional producers today—even though they can fight nature with modern know-how—often “want” to make the kind of oil in their regions that nature dictated to their great-great-grandfathers.

1) Tuscany

Let’s begin with the Yankee Stadium of olive oil, Tuscany. No region in the world stands for a regional character as strongly as Tuscany does…and that character is emerald-green olive oil, blazing with a green herbal flavor, often described as wheatgrass (among many other descriptors). Once you sip some, or eat some on food, the back of your throat will start to burn; young olives from many places do this, but Tuscany’s oils are particularly pungent. Most tasters consider this a plus.

Why is Tuscan oil so reliably green? Traditionally…the weather. Tuscan olives do not want to turn black in October, or in November, as many other European olives do. Harvesting green olives is not an especially good thing for the grower; there’s 40% less oil in green ones. But when December is just around the corner—threatening to destroy the crop with bad weather—the grower says, “Hmmm…I think I’ll harvest these green ones, in case they’re destroyed before they ripen.”

Today, of course, climate change may be wreaking olive change. But Tuscans know they can get a high price all over the world for their green olive oil, and continue to make it the same old way.

The leading olives in the region are Frantoio, Leccino, and Moraiolo; the former two have been planted now all over the new olive-growing world…but there’s much less Moraiolo, since it resists machine-harvesting.


2) Andalucia

I love me Tuscan olive oil, of course…but if there’s one olive in the world I positively worship, it is the Picual…which is not grown in Tuscany. It is, instead, grown in the vast olive oil fields of southern Spain, in the province of Andalucia, particularly around the olive-gorged town of Jaen. Picual olive oils can have a green character, a mixed character, or a gold-ish character (though not too often).

The most important thing to me is the flavor of Picual: I call these oils the “Sauvignon Blanc” of the olive-oil world. They are herbal in a way that differs from the Tuscan herbalness: these oils suggest, as Sauvignon Blancs sometimes suggest, what French winemakers call “pippi du chat.” Now, I’ve never had a cat, so I’m not sure. But I do know that Picual gives off a wild, feral gaminess that is extraordinary in the whole world of olive-oil-making. Additionally, the aroma of tomato vines is often present. You must try this!

Other olives in the region can reach the same flavor profile, when grown in Andalucia. Last year I tasted the Portico de la Villa, Aceite de Oliva Virgen Extra, Cordoba, Spain (only available to members of the Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club)—which, though made from another local olive, Hojiblanco—has a pronounced Picual character.


3) Kalamata

In the great and historic Peloponnese region of Greece, a large peninsula southwest of Athens, there is a city and region called Kalamata near the southwest corner. Putting two and two together, you may think that the purple-black Kalamata olives we all love at the table also go into the production of olive oil.

They do not!

In Kalamata, it is the Koroneiki olive that is used for olive oil—and has been for over 3000 years!

It is truly one of the world’s great olive-oil olives.

You might characterize it as a Tuscan-style oil, with important aromas of grass, artichokes, plus the late-palate pepperiness. But Greek oils, to me, usually add something extra to the party—the aroma and flavor of olives! Imagine that!


4) Provence

As you can surmise, my olive oil taste runs towards green oil, with a strong fruity-green character, and lots of peppery bite (it goes on bread, beans, pasta, etc. like a seasoning!) But there is some beautiful black olive oil out there, from fully-ripened olives, that I also love. And there is none I love more than the golden, carefully-crafted oils of southern France.

Here’s a perfect description of them from a source I trust, Rosa Jackson’s Edible Adventures:

“Of the dozens of olive varieties grown in Provence, the caillette – informally known as the Niçoise olive – is perhaps the most beautiful and subtle (and the hardest to pit, so watch your teeth when you eat pizza here). Native to the hills behind Nice and the nearby region of Liguria in Italy, this olive no bigger than the tip of my little finger ripens late, turning from pale green to purplish to almost black anytime between December and February depending on the altitude and the weather. The tradition in this area is to let most of the olives ripen fully before pressing them, which results in a deep golden oil with no bitterness. Over the years I have come to appreciate this oil’s gentle quality, even adding it to my lemon tart and my chocolate mousse. This is my everyday oil, one that I know will never overwhelm the other flavors in a dish. I even – gasp! – cook with it, since I don’t really trust any supermarket oil (more on that later).”

DR again: Of course, as Rosa also points out, across the border in Liguria similar golden oil is made—the best place in Italy for it, and entirely different from Tuscan oil. In Liguria, they have a local name for the Nicoise olive: Taggiasca. I first saw the name twenty years ago on a bottle of olive oil at Alain Ducasse’s three-star restaurant in Monte Carlo; he had fallen in love with Taggiasca, felt that it expressed his region (set as he was between Provence and Liguria), and adopted it as his premium house oil.


5) California

Ten years ago, you would not have seen this name on my list! But my oh my has progress been made! Today, California’s best oils are standing with the best oils from anywhere. The only odd thing about them, in the context of this list, is that the variety is tremendous; you can’t pin down any regions that are aesthetically consistent. But that’s often the joy of New World agriculture and production: we’re pioneers! It’s a work in progress!

Playing by the rules, I consider this to be THE REASON that California is one of my five favorite olive oil regions–it just keeps surprising me!

And…it’s easier for California producers to get you fresh olive oil than it is for producers elsewhere in the world to do so.

About two years ago I ran a mass olive-oil tasting, with hundreds of freshly-made oils from all over the world. Not only did California do extremely well—but it took the gold medal for #1 olive oil. I’m reproducing the note below, followed by my notes for two other tippy-top California oils.

Apollo Olive Oil, Gold Series Barouni, Premium California Extra Virgin, Oregon House, CA
Who’da thunk this crazy oil would end up on top? Yes, I tasted a number of top-quality olive oils from this excellent producer located in the hills of Yuba County, to the east of California’s hot Central Valley (at the northern end of that Valley). But I was blown away by this one, made from rare Barouni olives, which are native to…Tunisia! Olive trees were brought from there to California about 40 years ago, and you’d be hard-pressed to find Barouni olives anywhere else…except Tunisia and Yuba County! How do we do without? This was one of the richest and most flavorful oils in my entire tasting! Unctuous-looking green with gold hints. The nose reveals an exaggeration of the Tuscan bruised-fruit thing, with some fresh peaches lurking in the background, along with touches of herbs and metal. On the palate, this elixir is so rich it’s almost sticky—but never does it cross the line into greasy.

Butte View Olive Company California Ascolano Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Butte County, CA
This oil, from a producer I had never heard of, flipped me out. It comes from Oroville, an old gold-mining site near the northern end of California’s hot Central Valley—and yee-haw, they are up to something there. I’ll resist most of the “gold” puns, but this one is clearly a gold-medal winner for me. In fact, it is one of the best Andalucian-like oils I’ve ever had from an American producer. We can, in part, credit the Ascolano olive (an important olive in days of yore for canned California colossals!)…which did so well in California oils throughout my tasting. This oil, a light gold with a green-ish tint, has lovely apple-y flavors—but the real excitement is a strong shot of Picual-like tomato-vine right at the center of things. Intense and delicious! Sexy-rich, but elegant, with a mildly bitter-peppery finish. I can’t think of another oil I’d rather drizzle on quiet carbs like grilled bread and warm white beans. By the way, this is no flash in the pan (OK, couldn’t resist): I also tasted a lovely, off-beat Mission bottling from the same Butte Valley Olive Company with intriguing citrus tones (but no added citrus).

Mardesich Estate Extra Virgin Unfiltered Olive Oil, Paso Robles, CA
A lovely and powerful oil, really exciting…but marked down slightly for the center-stage position the bitterness takes. Light, clear greenish-gold. One of the richest aromas in all the California oils: wheatgrass, melon, marzipan, earth. Made from the classic Tuscan olive blend, and the flavors are intensely Tuscan. Super-rich mouthful which picks up bitterness early on—that’s the problem—but then morphs into profound spiciness, which goes on for some time. If you have full-flavored and complementary food, this may be one of the top choices in California. But it’ll shatter delicate fish, for example.

Photos Via: BigStockPhoto

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