Olive Oil Tasting Wheel
Describe the Aroma and Taste of Olive Oil
Olive Oil Tasting Wheel

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Olive Oil Tasting

©Richard Gawel

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Astute observers of the Australian countryside would have noticed that there is a new kid on the block. The greyish-green balls matrixed over the hill-sides where sheep once grazed, or vineyards once stood, tell of the renaissance of the Australian olive oil industry. From Southern Queensland down through to the warmer parts of Tasmania and across to the Karri country of Western Australia, the olive tree Olea europaea has taken a shine to the warm and dry climates of Australia and is happily producing tens of thousands of tonnes of high quality extra virgin olive oil each year.

Like wine, extra virgin olive oil is a product of a natural fruit, the quality and character of which is largely dependent on the climate. And like the grape vine, there are a many different varieties of olive, each producing olive oils with distinctive style and character. Varieties like Arbequina, that hails from Catalonia, produces sweet fruity oil; the fragrant Frantoio, spicy Leccino and bitter Moraiolo from Tuscany; the aromatic Koroneiki from Greece, and the world’s most prolific yet great varieties, Picual from Spain.

Many years ago while visiting the Peloponese region of Greece, an old producer pointed up at an one of his old Koroneiki trees and said to me – “it’s all extra virgin up there”. It was a poignant reminder of the fact that if the olives are not diseased and the oil is extracted with even reasonable care then the resultant oil will be of extra virgin grade. Poor quality oils are usually the result of processing diseased olives or more commonly from allowing the olives to sit around and ferment before being processed into oil. But while they were up in the tree, the olives contained pristine oil.

Extra virgin olive oil is one that has been extracted from fresh, good quality olives solely using a mechanical process of some sort. The mechanism may be a press, but these days nearly all extra virgin olive oil produced throughout the world is extracted by the action of spinning the lighter oil away from the heavier water and ‘olive bits’ using a high speed centrifuge. Have you ever made orange juice at home using one of those juicing machines? You just put the fruit in and the juice comes out. You didn’t add anything or do anything special. Well that’s how extra virgin olive oil is made. It’s just that in this case, the juice is oily.

It would be tempting to think that every oil that is labelled “extra virgin” is of the highest quality. Unfortunately this is not the case. By international convention, olive oils labelled as extra virgin are free of any undesirable flavours and have some degree of olive fruitiness. While these minimal quality requirements ensure that the oil won’t detract from your food, they really don’t give a guarantee that the oil will be of premium quality either. So within the extra virgin category you will find a range of qualities from rather bland oils through to aromatic and spectacularly complex oils that can turn a simple dish into something special just by giving it a splash.

So what makes a good extra virgin olive oil? High quality oils can be just about any conceivable colour – from emerald green through to golden yellow. However, what distinguishes a great extra virgin is its layers of aromas and complexity of flavour. The palate complexity of olive oil comes in part from two unusual characteristics specific to extra virgin olive oil; bitterness and pepperyness. Most extra virgin olive oils have some bitterness and many also produce a peppery tickle at the back of the throat. This throat catching sensation is not unlike what you get from eating ginger or mild chilli. Both the bitterness and pepperyness of extra virgin olive oils is caused by the health giving naturally occurring substances found in extra virgin oil called polyphenols. Finally outstanding extra virgin oils display a harmony of olive fruitiness, bitterness and pepperyness. But above all, excellent olive oils are pristinely fresh showing vibrant lively fresh fruit characters without any hints of tiredness or fattyness.

There's a lot to extra virgin olive oil tasting. Here is a start. A list of descriptors that you can use to describe the aroma and flavour of extra virgin olive oil can be found here.