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  • Spanish olive oil rivals with wine in its diversity
  • Spanish olive oil rivals with wine in its diversity
Spain is the world’s leading olive oil producer and grows over 260 different olive varieties.

Beyond wine

Spanish olive oil rivals with wine in its diversity

Pilar Molestina | June 23rd, 2015

What’s happening with Spanish olive oil that this past decade has turned into a foodie’s must? It’s trendy, it’s good, and it’s a fine quality product closely linked to history, culture and healthy habits. 

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the only oil in the world that can be consumed straight from the press with no previous chemical or industrial processes. It’s made of fruit juice from squeezed Mediterranean olives, so it is a product that is as natural and authentic as you can get. This has always been the case, so what’s new now? 

Over this period of economic turmoil, exports have been the engine of the economy. Although Spain has traditionally stood out for three basic products  —olive oil, fashion garments and wine— the label “made in Spain” has never been prestigious despite an increased brand awareness in recent years. Olive oil used to be primarily sold in bulk to Italy, France and the US where it was relabeled by powerful brands to gain extra profits. This situation is gradually changing and Spanish olive oil is vying for recognition helped by the huge popularity of Spanish cuisine

Spain tops olive oil production worldwide

An integral part of the country’s landscape and culture, Spain has the largest olive grove in the world with 2.5 million hectares of land and over 300 million olive trees producing around 1.2 million tons in recent harvests. 

In this scenario EVOO has taken a step forward. Spain produces 40% of the world’s olive oil in 27 Appellations of Origin (DO) which guarantee its origin, quality and characteristics, in a similar way to the wine is regulated. This means that only authorized varieties can be grown in certain areas and oil mills must be registered within a DO. Categories or types of oil are regulated as well as parameters like acidity, peroxide index, humidity, etc. 

Olive trees are grown almost all over Spain: 35 out of 50 provinces produce oil with Andalusia accounting for 60 % of the total output. The province of Jaen, in the northern part of the region, processes half of all that oil. Extremadura and Castilla-La Mancha come second, with a 12% to 15% share depending on the year followed closely by Catalonia, which has recently increased production. Other important areas of production are Aragón, Murcia, Valencia and Majorca with La Rioja and Navarra as recent arrivals. 

EVOO diversity

With such a wide diversity, oil tastings can be great fun. Olives, grown on trees adapted to different soils and climates, produce a range of oils with specific personalities. Oils of the same variety produced in different geographical areas can have different aromas and flavours. Likewise, one olive variety may produce oil with different characteristics depending on fruit ripeness at harvest time.  

There are over 260 olive varieties grown in Spain. Picual is the most popular (50% of the total production) and is found in Jaén, Cordoba, Granada, Málaga, Ciudad Real and Badajoz. It displays fruity aromas and a slightly bitter taste. Picudo is mostly grown in Córdoba has an even fruitier character with an almond taste and a touch of sweetness. Arbequina, widely planted in Aragón and Catalonia, is a favourite among producers for its high extraction qualities and displays a fresh and fruity character with hints of apple. 

Hojiblanca is found in Málaga, Seville and specially in Córdoba. It is fruity, with a touch of green grass and a spicy aftertaste. Empeltre is typical from Aragón and shows fruity aromas with apple notes and a smooth finish. It is also present in La Rioja, Navarre and Catalonia. Cornicabra is produced mainly in Castilla-La Mancha and displays a greenish color, with a fresh, spicy and bitter character.

The Olive Route in Sierra Mágina (Jaén) is a great opportunity to learn more about extra virgin olive oil, with olive trees extending as far as the eye can see across the Natural Park of Sierra Mágina. The importance of olive trees is reflected in the architecture, craftsmanship and local traditions of all the small towns in this area. 

Meanwhile, Córdoba is well known for its desayunos molineros (mill breakfasts, in English), a hearty meal with bread, olive oil and quintessential Spanish ingredients such as ham and tomato sauce. In addition to tastings and guided walks along olive groves where you can see centuries old olive trees, a visit to one of the olive oil museums in town is recommended. Winter visitors are likely to get a chance to join one of the numerous olive oil fiestas held in the region between November and January

Five names to look out for

Diversity is huge but this is a small selection of good brands to choose from all the varieties and regions in Spain.

Olis Sóller, D.O. Oli de Mallorca
Cooperativa San Bartomeu, Sóller. Illes Balears.
This cooperative has been growing crops along the Tramontana Mountain Range since 1899. With the arrival of a mill in 1926, oil became one of its flagship products.  Modernisation and sustainability are the cornerstones of the cooperative’s philosophy. This extra virgin oil is pure and soft and perfectly balanced on the palate. A strong style that combines acidity and sweetness.

Price: €9.99 on Fet a Sóller.

El Molí dels Torms, Les Garrigues, Lleida 
This project, started 10 years ago, is the dream of two families who entered the oil world with the idea of making a quality organic oil. It is a blend of Arbequina, Arbreblanc and Verdal with a fruity and strong personality. The bitter and spicy touch is characteristic of green oils and displays a pleasant, almost minty finish. Further information here.

Estepa Virgen Extra, D.O. Estepa
Sociedad Cooperativa Andaluza Oleoestepa.
Almost 20 years ago, 5,000 olive growers in the provinces of Seville and Cordoba joined forces to add value to their olive oils and exploit synergies arising in their 17 mills. This extra virgin oil is a selection of the best olives grown and harvested very early (first days in November). It has an intense green color, with freshly cut grass aromas and green fruit. It is nuanced and balanced, with just the right bitterness and spice. 

Several prices and formats on the producer's online shop.

Casas de Hualdo Arbequina
El Carpio de Tajo, Toledo
This aromatic and delicate extra virgin oil is made from Arbequina olives that grow by the Tajo River as it flows through the province of Toledo. It displays a very complex nose with hints of nuts, fresh grass and apples. After buying the estate in 1986, the owners carried out an ambitious transformation and planted olive trees 10 years later. This quality EVOO comes from the 300,000 olive trees planted in the estate. 

Price: €9.95 on the producer's website.

Primer día de cosecha
Castillo de Canena. Canena, Jaén
Environmentally friendly, the mill follows processes that reduce soil erosion and preserve the native vegetation transforming it into clean green fuel. This limited edition is a Picual EVOO coming from the very first olives harvested in the estate. Each year, a celebrity reflects this magical day on the olive oil’s label —this harvest was the turn of Spanish fashion designer Roberto Verino.  Soft but powerful as it passes through the mouth. Fruity nuances and a structured palate.

Price: 16 € on OlivaOliva.


Waiter, there's Tempranillo in my vermouth
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