When choosing a premium extra virgin olive oil, there are some well know factors used to help the customer make a decision. Some of the common ones are as follows.
1)Check for harvest date. All extra virgin olive oil is far superior if the oil is made within the harvest period of that year. For example, olives milled in November of 2019 should be used for a full year until the following harvest of November 2020. Of course, just because an oil has a harvest date, it does not mean the oil was produced properly. For example, did they extract the olives within 24Hrs? Were the olives at the right temp when milled? We will delve in to that more later, however if a producer puts a harvest date on the bottle it is a good sign that they are focusing on quality, and understand what it takes.
2) What kind of olive or olives are used in the oil. While an oil with a blend of several varieties of olives can taste award winning fantastic, it is important that the varieties should be listed on the bottle. Showing that an oil was made with a Coratina, can tell you a few facts about the oil. First, when you consume it you can recognize the unique character that is associated with the Italian variety. More importantly, it tells you that the producer focused on this variety and milled, harvested and grew this oil with the focus on the Coratina. More than just a flavor profile, an understanding of how to get the best oil out of an individual variety can be one of the more difficult aspects of olive oil production. If it is a blend, that has its own complexities, and there are many millers who pride themselves on understanding how to blend oils to make a complex and intriguing product.
3) Look for acidity levels. Acidity, or FFA (Free Fatty Acid) is a result of the fermentation of the olives. The longer it takes the olives to go from tree to mill, or if it is under too much heat the acidity will rise, and make the oil defective. What is the right level for acidity? While the IOC has a limit of <.8 and the California Olive Oil council has a limit of <.5, most premium olive oil will come in at around .1-.3. So look for oil that has such acidity levels.
4) Award-winning. Every year there are several international olive oil competitions that take place in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Athens and Tokyo. There are many smaller and local competitions, that are there to compare the local regions oils with each other. A customer should certainly look for award winning oil, but there is always more to the story than just an award. Many oils that have won an award will promote it as if they truly won the only gold medal, and have been proclaimed the best in the field of competitors. This is obviously not the case, and looking at any awards website, you can as many as half the total entries can win gold. The reason being that an award isn’t meant to be in competition with a fellow oil, but rather it is received based on the scoring of each individual olive oil. So for say if it scores high marks for balance, complexity, and harmony, then it will achieve gold status. Given the case as such, keep in mind when buying an award-winning oil, you are getting an oil that was flawlessly produced, and has the maximum quality’s obtained from the olives.
5)Single Estate. Preferably, one should look for an evoo with a single estate origin. Much like wines, there is a certain level of craftsmanship that comes with creating an evoo that comes from a single source farm. While there are many quality private labels out there a farmer that bottles his own oil has to much at stake to mess around with their oil. The factors driving the quality are usually pride, history and the fact that small batch production usually yields the finest olive oil.
In our next issue we will discuss how to build on the method and develop a better understanding and appreciation for the evoo you pick out.
Raphael Bondi, owner and Olive Oil sommelier.