Premium (High-End) Extra-Virgin Olive Oils

Published November 1, 2006. From Cook's Illustrated.

Overview:

To fully appreciate the complex flavor of extra-virgin olive oil, you want to taste it straight from the bottle, or, at most, just barely warmed. In the test kitchen, we drizzle it over fish, vegetables, soups, pasta dishes, salads, and more.

But what if price isn't your first consideration? Does more money buy better olive oil? If so, how do you choose among the hundreds of boutique oils sold in fancy bottles at even fancier prices?

When Americans want extra-virgin olive oil, we generally buy Italian. Seven of the top 10 olive oils sold in the United States are Italian. But a growing number of extra-virgin olive oils from other countries now fill store shelves, including more offerings from Spain, the top olive-growing nation, and Greece. There are even oils from California. Gathering a lineup of best-selling boutique extra-virgin olive oils from a variety of countries, we stripped them of their stylish labels and put them through the rigors of a blind tasting, sampling them plain, with French bread, and drizzled over fresh… read more

To fully appreciate the complex flavor of extra-virgin olive oil, you want to taste it straight from the bottle, or, at most, just barely warmed. In the test kitchen, we drizzle it over fish, vegetables, soups, pasta dishes, salads, and more. 

But what if price isn't your first consideration? Does more money buy better olive oil? If so, how do you choose among the hundreds of boutique oils sold in fancy bottles at even fancier prices?

When Americans want extra-virgin olive oil, we generally buy Italian. Seven of the top 10 olive oils sold in the United States are Italian. But a growing number of extra-virgin olive oils from other countries now fill store shelves, including more offerings from Spain, the top olive-growing nation, and Greece. There are even oils from California. Gathering a lineup of best-selling boutique extra-virgin olive oils from a variety of countries, we stripped them of their stylish labels and put them through the rigors of a blind tasting, sampling them plain, with French bread, and drizzled over fresh mozzarella.

High Standards

Sipped straight up from little cups, the extra-virgin olive oils in our lineup offered a pleasingly wide range of flavors, from fruity and "olive-y" to mild, buttery, and mellow to powerfully green, grassy, and pungent. Why does olive oil have such a wide-ranging flavor profile?

Experts agree that the type of olive, the time of harvest (earlier means greener, more bitter, and pungent; later, more mild and buttery), and processing are the biggest factors. As one expert pointed out, olive oil is really just olive juice, and the quickest, gentlest extraction yields the truest flavors. The best-quality oil comes from olives picked at their peak—deciding exactly when to pick is the chief art of olive oil makers—and processed as quickly as possible without heat (which can coax more oil from the olives but at the expense of flavor).

Bottle labels often tout an oil's "low acidity." All extra-virgin oils must have less than 0.8 percent free oleic acid by agreement of the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC). We sent the oils in our tasting to an independent lab and found that they all met this standard. We also had the lab analyze the oils for peroxide levels—the industry test for oxidation caused by improper handling and/or storage—and, again, all were well within the IOOC standard.

Balancing Act

If all of the extra-virgin oils we tasted were technically fine—at least according to lab tests—why had tasters found such a variety of flavors? And why did tasters' scores reveal some clear winners—and some clear losers?

The big loser in our tasting was our favorite inexpensive oil, which finished dead last. Although disappointed, we weren't really surprised. This oil may be better than the other cheap options, but it couldn't compete with high-end products. Olive oil has been produced for centuries, and it makes sense that companies that take the time to make oil in small batches have figured out some secrets to distinguish their oils from mass-market products. At least when it comes to olive oil, high prices buy more than just pretty bottles.

We were surprised, however, that tasters were not impressed with the high-end Italian oils, which finished in fifth through eighth place. Our two top finishers came from Spain, the third from Greece. We needed to explain these unexpected findings.

As we tallied our tasting results, we realized that our two favorite oils—both praised by tasters for their fairly assertive yet well-balanced flavor—were made with a mix of intense Picual and mild Hojiblanca olives (one also adds delicate-flavored Picudo olives), creating a "fruity" olive oil with no elements that were perceived as too strong tasting—or too mild. By contrast, the other two Spanish oils we tasted were made with only the mild-mannered Arbequina olive, and they rated much less favorably.

Darrell Corti, owner of Corti Brothers store in Sacramento, Calif., and chairman of olive oil judging at the Los Angeles County Fair, the top domestic and international olive oil competition in the United States, told us that producers often blend extra-virgin oils from olives with distinct flavors to create the overall flavor profile they want. According to Corti, the best oil is often made from a blend of varietals; the blend may consist of several oils, each one made from a single varietal (known as monocultivar, or single-olive, oils), or from a "field blend," in which different types of olives are picked and then processed together to create a single oil.

Was blending the answer we sought? Maybe not. Ranking nearly as high as the top Spaniards was a Greek oil, made only with Koroneiki olives. It's not a blend, yet its balanced character and fruity, rounded flavor, with no harsh notes, made it similar in profile to the two top oils. Additionally, while some of the so-so Italian oils were made from single varietals, others were blends. So blending alone doesn't guarantee great oil.

The choice of olives is one factor that makes a particular oil more or less appealing. However, with their characteristic green, intense olive flavor and peppery aftertaste, the Italian oils had a few vocal supporters, but the majority of tasters felt that the oils' harsh pungency overwhelmed the olive flavor. The worst offender in this regard was a California oil, made with a blend of six Tuscan olives in the style of the Italian oils. This highly assertive oil turned off the majority of our tasters.

Green Monsters

What makes the Italian and Italian-style extra-virgin olive oils so pungent and green? According to Paul Vossen of the University of California Cooperative Extension in Sonoma, an IOOC-certified olive oil taster, Italian oils came by their signature flavor profile out of necessity—and producers then made it a virtue.

"Tuscany has frost problems, or potential frost problems, so their law requires that they harvest their olives early—by a certain date—and that means they have a green olive oil that is bitter and pungent," said Vossen. "So the Italians just convinced the world that that's how extra-virgin olive oil is supposed to taste. It's marketing. Once you realize that and put it in context, and take it with a grain of salt...yes, they make absolutely fabulous extra-virgin olive oils in Italy, but it's really just one style."

Darrell Corti agreed. "Americans have been told that they should like very bitter oils, but they don't really like them. The Tuscan oils are bitter."

In recognition of the variety of extra-virgin olive oil styles, this year the Los Angeles County Fair judging panel, of which Vossen is a member, adopted a new European standard, dividing the oils into three categories based on flavor intensity: light fruity intensity, medium fruity intensity, and intense fruitiness.

As the Italian style moves into a less dominant role, other styles of oil are moving in, most notably those from Spain. "For many years, Spain was the poorest part of Europe, especially in the south," said Vossen, "and they're coming out of that now. They used to be only concerned about bulk oil production, while the Italians (Spain's biggest customer) would buy their oil and blend and refine it and craft a good olive oil out of it." Spanish extra-virgin olive oils are coming into their own, he said. "They're making fabulous olive oils right now."

In the end, balance turned out to be the key factor that determined the winners of our tasting, and we found it in Spanish oils, not Italian oils. Our tasters preferred oils of medium fruity intensity. Italian oils generally fall into the intense category.

In the test kitchen, we'll keep our inexpensive favorite on hand for everyday use, but we'll stock up on our preferred medium fruity Spanish oil, too. With our favorite coming in at about half the price of our runner up, the former is our new test kitchen favorite when we want an extra-virgin olive oil with high-end flavor but don't want to break the bank to pay for it.

Methodology:

Twenty Cook’s Illustrated staff members tasted nationally available extra-virgin olive oils priced at more than $20 per liter, along with the test kitchen’s favorite inexpensive supermarket extra-virgin oil. We tasted them plain, on French bread, and drizzled over fresh mozzarella. Tasters rated each sample for olive flavor, complexity, and overall appeal. Brands are listed in order of preference. Most of the oils are available in supermarkets.

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