About premium olive oils

Premium olive oils are the result of a highly specific production process, which starts with the farming and ends with the storage and bottling. Its aim is to offer the consumer the highest quality and taste as opposed to the largest quantity of oil.

Pruning and irrigation

Olive trees require constant care to ensure optimal production conditions. Pruning is carried out on average out every 1-2 years. It helps to shape the trees, focus their energy on a smaller number of branches and ensures sufficient air and light circulation. It also eases access to the olives during the harvest.

Irrigation provides great support to the trees which are often located in relatively warm and dry regions. This is a particularly complex phase as the artisans seek to provide the appropriate amount of water at different stages of the cultivation. Sensor systems and regular monitoring of the trees feed continuous information on the health of the trees and the watering levels around them. Weather conditions play an important role in the quality of the olives. For instance, excessive heat at the time of blossoming can easily destroy a significant portion of the harvest. Cold conditions and the absence of rain, immediately prior to the harvest are typically very favorable. Whilst the artisan’s skills and experience can help create the best conditions for the trees, nature will ultimately decide how good a crop can be.

Natural evolution of an olive

Olives are designed by nature to feed other plants and generate another olive tree, thanks to the pit. Once it has reached its maturation and has fallen from the tree, the olive releases an enzyme which triggers its progressive decomposition. A damaged olive lying on the ground in high temperatures will go through this phase in a matter of days. This is a crucial aspect in understanding the production of premium olive oils.The harvest is typically done early, when most of the olives are between green and purple, this phase is called envero in Spanish and invaiatura in Italian.

It is regarded as the peak in the quality of the olive for many varieties. It is worth noting that the amount of oil produced at this stage of maturation can be less than half the amount produced by ripe olives. This is a key driver for the price differences between extra virgin olive oil qualities.
Scientific analysis and daily sampling is used to decide the best day to start the harvest. It is part art, part science. This is when a race against time starts for the artisans as they seek to harvest their best olives in the shortest period of time.

Harvesting

Several techniques can be used for harvesting, either by hand or with some mechanical assistance. Nets or umbrella systems are placed under the trees to collect the olives. Any unhealthy olives or olives that have fallen from the tree prior to the harvest are not used. Olives are transported in small boxes to avoid any damage due to weight pressure.

 

Oil extraction

This is a critical stage in the production and is carried out in a temperature controlled environment with minimal contact with air to avoid triggering an oxidation process which would affect the quality of the oil.

The reference to cold pressing is obsolete nowadays, since the vast majority of quality extra virgin olive oils are produced at low temperatures via an extraction process. The very best producers manage to complete this process within a few hours of the harvest.

The process of transforming olives into oil requires a high degree of skill and experience as well as great attention to detail to achieve the highest quality. It could be regarded as freezing a moment in time when the olive juice is at its peak in both quality and taste.

At a final stage, the oil is filtered and stored at low temperatures with no contact to air or light.

Olive oil categories

Under EU regulations, olive oils are classified into extra virgin, virgin and lampante according to a combination of technical and sensory criteria. We will focus solely on extra virgin olive oils, since the 2 other categories are of a significantly lower quality. The main criteria can be summarized as follows

These regulatory limits provide limited guidance to the consumer regarding the quality differences between extra virgin olive oils. For instance, it is difficult to imagine that an oil has neither smell nor taste. An oil which matches exactly the minimum legal requirements at the time of harvest may deteriorate and no longer hold the extra virgin quality at the time of consumption. There have also been a number of incidents where oils labelled as extra virgin failed to pass the regulatory requirements.

Quality labels

A number of initiatives have been launched to help consumers better understand the quality of olive oils. QVextra! International (www.qvextra.es), the Olive Oil Foundation (www.international-olive-foundation.org) and the Extra Virgin Alliance (www.extravirginalliance.org) are playing an increasing role

in the consumer education about premium olive oils. The labels from these organisations recognise oils which have passed superior quality thresholds both from a chemical and sensory perspective with a view to ensuring the highest quality standard at the time of consumption.

Awards and competitions

Among the various international competitions for extra virgin olive oils, the Mario Solinas Quality Award of the International Olive Council is the most respected event and is widely seen as a reference for the very best extra virgin olive oils worldwide.

For more information on olive oil competitions, visit www.worldsbestoliveoils.org
The website compiles the results of all the major international competitions, which are given different weightings and ranks the best producers worldwide.

In addition, the Flos Olei Guide (www.marcooreggia.com) prepared by Marco Oreggia offers an overview of close to 700 extra virgin olive oils from 49 countries with information on taste, aromas

If you wish to learn more about premium olive oils, we recommend the following websites and publications:

www.teatronaturale.com
www.internationaloliveoil.org
www.oliveoiltimes.com
www.mercacei.com

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