Gold Rush: Olive Oil Harvest in Napa, and Olive Oils of Portugal

Gold Rush: Olive Oil Harvest in Napa, and Olive Oils of Portugal

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Olives in Napa

The Matthiassons harvesting olives in Napathe Matthiasson crew harvesting olives for milling, Napa, Oct 2014

Olives are ripe in Napa Valley. Their harvest has begun. Yesterday, the Matthiassons harvested olives and brought them to the mill to press into oil. They use the oil for personal consumption, and also make it available to their wine club members as an option to add to club shipments.

I’ve always wondered how olives were harvested — surely they weren’t hand-picked one at a time from every tree. For the small-scale farmer, hand rakes are brushed repeatedly through the tree pulling the fruit off its branches onto a waiting tarp below. Then the tarp is gathered and its contents dumped into a bin.

After loading the bin, Steve took a quick break to offer each of us a bit of burrata on baguette topped with their previous years oil, and a touch of smoked sea salt as a toast to their days work, and the olives heading off to the mill. Yum.

Olive Oil Quality Designations: Extra-Virgin versus Virgin (vs Refined, or Pomace oil)

The term Virgin in olive oil refers to the means of production. When oil is extracted through only mechanical means the oil classifies as Virgin oil. An olive mill essentially presses the fruit causing it to release its oil without heat, and so is considered mechanical production. What is important here is that no chemical, or heat has been applied to oils classified as Virgin. In that sense, Virgin oil production preserves the purity and freshness of the fruit.

There are two types of Virgin olive oil — the basic Virgin classification, and a higher quality of the style. When an oil has been made mechanically, and is of the highest quality it is considered Extra-Virgin.

It is also possible to produce Refined olive oil through chemical means, or Olive Pomace Oil through heat extraction. These are both considered food grade, but are of far lower quality than Virgin style oils. Additionally, there is lamp grade olive oil, which is made through methods considered unsafe for consumption.

In Portugal last month I was lucky enough to learn more about olive oil blending, and how oils are assessed for quality. Harvest there will begin late this month, likely extending into January. Because olive harvest occurs over two calendar years, what would be called vintages in wine is instead referred to as the campaign in olive oil. For example, the upcoming olive harvest in Portugal would count as the 2014-5 campaign.

Olives in Portugal

Ana CarrilhoMaster Blender, Ana Carrilho, Alentejo, Portugal, Sept 2014

Portugal is unique in its oil production in that its regulatory system has chosen to keep the focus on small production, high quality oils, rather than allowing bulk oil production, or multi-country blending as occurs in much of the rest of the Mediterranean. For Portugal, the origin remains important. One of the impressive elements of all of this is how affordable Portuguese olive oil remains internationally. The quality-to-cost ratio for Portuguese oils is some of the best on the market.

Upon arrival in Alentejo last month, we were invited to meet the Master olive oil Blender, Ana Carrilho, who leads the team for Esporão. Carrilho studied, and taught olive growing and quality in Portugal, Spain, and Italy before then returning to Portugal to help develop the industry in her home country.

Many of the regions in Portugal that support viticulture also grow quality olives. As a result, many estates host both plant species, and when large enough also produce both. Esporão was able to reach a sizeable enough production level of olive oil to begin releasing their own oils in 1997.

Portuguese DOPs for Olive Oil

Olive oil in Portugal originally included much smaller production than today. Historically the oil from the region was produced and exported as lamp oil. However, after the phylloxera decimation of the 19th century, the country replanted many of the former vineyard sites to olive trees in order to supplement lost income. A shift to olive oil as a quality food product began as a result.

Today, the country has 6 controlled regions for olive oil production, also known as DOPs. Oil within the DOPs must originate within its area, and also be tested for quality designation between Virgin and Extra-Virgin.

As Carrilho explained, unlike wine, olive oil is not meant to be aged. How long it keeps freshness in bottle depends partially on olive variety, with heartier varieties lasting up to two years, and more delicate ones being ideally consumed within six months of bottling.

In tasting oils, like wine, aroma, palate, and finish are all considered. It is actually possible to do varietal identification tasting for oils like doing blind tasting in wine (how fricking cool is that?). As Carrilho explained, in tasting for quality, and varietal or blend expression what is being looked for is fresh fruit character.

Because most consumers in the United States are actually used to consuming old olive oil, many of the characteristics we are used to expecting are actually the notes of expired oil. Still fresh oil offers the kinds of floral and fruit notes that lift from the glass with a sense of lightness and life, rather than carrying the heavier and darker notes of mustiness, wet paper, or biscuit of oil that’s gone bad.

Esporão Olive Oils

Portuguese Extra Virgin Olive Oil Tasting w Ana CarrilhoCarrilho guided us through a tasting of four Esporão olive oils, each of which is available in the United States, as well as one specialty oil only available in from the best campaigns within Portugal.

Azeite Virgem Extra, Galega, Ageite-Portugal $16 500mL
(the green band on the far right of the photo above)

The Portuguese olive variety Galega produces one of the more stable, as well as fruitiest of olive oils. It keeps well up to two years after bottling. In Portugal, consumers tend to like sweet (that is fruit focused) olive oils, and are less used to bitter or pepper flavors of some varieties. As such, Galega serves as a great base for Portuguese olive oils offering a clear fruit focus, and a lot of longevity in the bottle.

The Esporão Galega olive oil offers subtle while pure fruit notes with green apple lift, almond accents, and a lightly spicy, pepper finish. This bottling is made entirely of Galega. Good for all around use, and can hold up to stronger flavors without being over powering itself.

Azeite Virgem Extra, Organic, Ageite-Portugal $18 500mL
(2nd bottle from right)

The Organic olive oil from Esporão offers a blend of the varieties Cobrançosa and Arbequina. (Arbequina is one of my favorites, and as a side note goes great with chocolate.) Varieties are milled separately and blended after. Cobrançosa forms the majority of this campaign, with accents of the floral Arbequina for delicacy and lift.

The Esporão Organic offers a softer, slightly sweeter presentation than the Galega giving notes of fresh banana, mixed nut accents, a creamy palate, and long light pepper finish. This oil good for use on vegetables or fish after cooking for an accent of creamy fresh flavor.

Azeite de Moura DOP, Ageite-Portugal $16 750mL
(2nd bottle from left with the black band)

The Moura blend is an official DOP designate olive oil made to offer taste consistency from year to year. While the other oils vary in presentation to some degree by campaign, the Moura blend strives to offer a product recognizable by consumers with each bottling. As such the blend proportions shift from campaign to campaign. However, the varieties include Galega, Cordovil, and Verdeal. This is also the most widely available of the Esporão oils within the United States.

The Esporão Moura gives stronger aromatics with distinct herbal elements, green fruits, and green almond. The palate follows with a smooth presentation followed by a slightly sharp, bitter-spicy finish. As this oil has more intensity it works well on simple foods for additional flavor, and can hold up to spice as well.

Azeite Virgem Extra, Seleçção, Ageite-Portugal $18 500mL
(bottle on the far left with the gray band)

The Seleçção olive oil is made from a blend of the best, most mature varieties of each campaign. As such it is a special bottling that changes from year to year, and is the first of the blends made for bottling.  We tasted from the last campaign, that of 2013-4. For that bottling the varietal make-up included Cobrançosa, Picual, Galega, and Frontoio.

The Esporão Seleçção carries the greatest intensity, and also purity of precision of these four bottlings tasted. There is a greater sense of freshness, and persistence to this oil from aromatics through long finish. Look for grassy freshness, green almond, and a lightly buttery mid-palate, with a beautifully focused finish carrying bitter spice. Use as accent on dishes with otherwise simple flavors to allow the flavors of the oil to show, or enjoy simply with bread.

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