I had no idea what I didn’t know. I went on a wine trip to Italy and stumbled into the fascinating, ancient world of olive oil, an industry so similar to wine that it’s freaky. In Italy, the two dance together like lovers. Quality wine, meet quality olive oil … nice to see you. The two are inseparable at every meal for a reason.
I’ve met passionate winemakers whom I consider artisans rather than industrialists. Olive oil producers think of themselves in a similar fashion, referring to their product like a loved one. Like wine, quality oil relies on a keen selection of ripe fruit and expert blending. Like grapes, the soft, fleshy olives need a perfect balance of climate, soil, and pruning techniques to create a delicious end product. After bottling, both are fickle: They hate oxygen, light and variations in temperature. “DOP olive oil,” an appellation designation like Russian River Pinot Noir, is produced in regions around Italy, creating an intensely fragrant yet mild oil. But due to the lack of demand for it, not much can be found in the States.
I’ve always wondered about the term “extra virgin” … can something be more virginal than a virgin? For olive oil, extra virgin means it comes from the first press and meets a certain level of acidity (less than one percent), whereas virgin can be up to three-percent acidity. Those simply labeled olive oil or pure olive oil come from the lesser quality fruit (sometimes gathered from the ground) that has to be chemically refined and distilled to be edible. To give it a pleasant odor and flavor, some extra virgin oil is added at the end.
Contrary to the myth, the color of the olive oil doesn’t indicate quality, unless it has a reddish-yellow hue, indicating it’s seen better days. Unlike wine, which can improve with age, olive oil should be consumed within 18 months after bottling. The variations in green-ness result from the 686 different species of olives used (virtually always harvested green — a black olive indicates a very mature olive). To spot good oil, look for a light yellow to a muted greenish color, with an aroma and taste of bitter almonds, fresh cut grass and, of course, olives. Don’t worry about cloudiness, an indication that it’s unfiltered — a practice that leaves up to one percent solids in the oil. Purists think the solids give off unpleasant flavors over time; others disagree. Your call. But avoid plastic bottles, which are oxygen permeable.
Seventy-five percent of the world’s olive oil production is European, and, of that, Italy produces 30 percent, Spain produces 44 percent (the U.S. is responsible for 0.1 percent of world production).
The competition between Spain and Italy is macho healthy. The Italian producers I visited — Monini, Farchioni and Coricelli in Umbria — all bristled when asked about the rising quality of Spanish olive oil. Their answer? A predictable, “Not even close to ours.”
I admit (somewhat sheepishly) that I use Spanish olive oil for cooking, Goya Extra Virgin, which Consumer Reports called a Best Buy in their September 2004 issue. For salads, B.R. Cohn, a winery in Sonoma Valley that also produces extra virgin olive oil, ranks as my favorite. For the record, Monini Originale came in a respectable 10th.
With a growing body of evidence that says olive oil and its polyphenols make for a healthy staple, we all should be slurping up more olive oil, Italian, Spanish or other. America’s consumption of imported olive oil has grown almost 500 percent in the past 20 years, so maybe with enough wine and olive oil, we’ll all live for forever.