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Variety is the spice of olives

Variety is the spice of olives

The quality of virgin olive oils is based on different aspects, some referred to in the rules and regulations, both at national and European Union level, and others used by researchers and experts, which should have a significant influence in the consumer’s assessment of the quality of this product.

Thus a virgin olive oil is classified according to the parameters set by what is called the regulated quality, or that which is collected in the rules and regulations currently in force, classifying virgin oils based on physicochemical and sensory indexes.

Extra virgin olive oil is considered the best of olive oils. It has physical and chemical indices expressing that is was elaborated in the best conditions, with an acidity of less than 0.8°, and with clean flavors, with no alterations.

It presents sensory characteristics that reproduce the scents and flavors of the fruit of origin, the olive. It is an olive juice, harvested at its optimum ripeness, healthy, and properly processed. As a result of its extraction method, it contains all the elements of nutritional interest.

The composition of the oil is closely related to the variety of olives from which it originates, although other factors such as the agrological environment or cultivation conditions may have a small influence.

The organoleptic quality is very important for the consumer, as this is what can be perceived, and establishes different types of oils. These oil types range from the intense greens - with more or less pronounced attributes of bitterness and pungency and nuances like fig or astringency that bestow a very marked character - to the sweet, almondy, and more herbaceous, much milder oils. Both ends of the spectrum are excellent in quality, yet their use must be differentiated by the consumer.

The variety has a great influence on sensory characteristics, providing oil with its own personality that can be detected by tasters or experienced users. Other factors, especially fruit maturity, among others, influence the intensity of the attributes, but always respecting the personality of the variety.

Another important aspect involving quality is the resistance of extra virgin olive oils to becoming rancid. This could also be a measure, in some way, of the commercial quality of the oil. Such resistance has a strong varietal component, with oils of enormous stability versus others that will be altered in little time. Conservation has a significant influence over this quality, bearing in mind that oil should be stored in a cool place, always sheltered from light. However, under the same storage conditions, some oils can triple their duration compared to others of a different variety.

Currently we find extra virgin oils called monvarioetal in the market, i.e. coming from a single variety and having its representative characteristics. These are oils that generally possess a marked personality and are liked by consumers.

There is also another important range of extra virgin oils that are compositions or assemblages of different varieties, in various proportions (coupages), seeking to integrate the qualities of the different varieties they are made of. These oils have more sensorial complexity and complement the quality characteristics of the different varieties, seeking good compositions in the nutritional aspect. They boast high stabilities and sensory balances, with multiple nuances. Each brand tries to establish its representative type in striving for consumer loyalty.

These varieties can be classified as major varieties (those that dominate in an olive growing region and occupy more than 50% of its surface), secondary varieties (which are the regular plantation base in one or more regions, but fail to cover 50% of their surface), or local varieties (known only locally).

Following is a listing of the main Spanish varieties and some of the most representative varieties from the main olive-growing countries. A description is included, expressing their agronomic characteristics, growing area, state of expansion, composition in nutritional elements, and sensory characteristics. In addition, in order to facilitate the understanding of the parameters that accompany each variety, there is a description of their functions and the units in which they are expressed.

-       Total tocopherol content (Vitamin E): It is expressed in parts per million (ppm) or mgr. / Kg. The major tocopherol in olive oil is a-tocopherol. It is vitamin E, an antioxidant compound that protects the body from cell aging and oxidative processes.

-       Total polyphenols: Their content is expressed in ppm or mgr. / Kg. caffeic acid. They have strong antioxidant activity. They are responsible for sensory aspects of the oil.

-       Oxidative stability: An analytical parameter that predicts the time it will take an extra virgin olive oil to become rancid. It is expressed in hours. An hour of stability may amount to approximately a week in appropriate storage conditions.

-       Fatty Acids: Fatty acids are grouped as follows: a) saturated, when they lack double bonds; b) monounsaturated, with one double bond, mainly oleic, with high nutritional interest, major in olive oil, and c) polyunsaturated, with two or more double bonds, such as linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid that must be included in the diet but in moderate or low quantities. They are expressed in percentages.




MAIN OLIVE VARIETIES

Picual

It is the most important variety in Spain, with a cultivated surface of over 700,000 ha. It is also known as 'Marteña' or 'Lopereña'. It is the predominant variety in the province of Jaen, extending to the border of Cordoba and Granada. Its cultivation is expanding, increasing its presence in other regions and olive-growing countries.
It is a vigorous variety, with high production and good adaptation to mechanization. It has a high oil content. It is sensitive to drought and very sensitive to Verticillium.
Picual is a fundamental reference for the Sierra de Segura, Sierra Mágina and Sierra de Cazorla Protected Designations of Origin.
Its juice, with a strong personality, is fruity, fragrant and has positive attributes of bitterness, pungency and astringency that will become milder with time. As specific qualities there is a prevalence of fig and fresh wood, which provide great personality.
Its composition presents a high oleic acid content, more than 75%, low content in linoleic acid (5.8%) and medium in palmitic acid (12.2%). Its vitamin E content is medium-high, 303 ppm. Also, its polyphenol content is high, 475 ppm. Due to its fatty acid composition and content of natural antioxidants, the oil obtained from this variety has a very high resistance to rancidity, over 120 hours.



Cornicabra

It occupies an area of about 300,000 ha., which makes it the second most important variety nationwide. It is the predominant variety in Castilla-La Mancha and a reference of the Protected Designation of Origin Montes de Toledo. It is also known as Cornezuelo de Mora de Toledo.
This is a variety with little expansion. It coexists in its growing area with other varieties.
Of medium vigor, it is delayed in the entry into production and reaches an average production. The adaptation to machining is not very high, due to the fruit's resistance on the branch. It has a high oil content. A rustic variety that adapts well to poor and limestone soils.
Its oil is fruity and fragrant with mild overtones of bitterness and pungency. Slightly astringent and smooth on the palate, with a light almond flavor.
It has a high oleic acid content, more than 75%, while it is low in linoleic acid (4.5%), and medium in palmitic (13.2%). Vitamin E content is medium, 250 ppm, and it is high in polyphenols, 593 ppm. It has a high resistance to rancidity, about 110 hours.




Hojiblanca

Also known as Lucentina, it occupies a surface of about 220,000 ha., making it the third in importance within the Spanish olive grove. It is predominant in the provinces of Cordoba and Malaga, extending to the border of Granada and Seville.
A variety with some expansion, both in cultivation area and in other olive districts. Prized for its dual purpose, as an oil and a table olive.
Very vigorous, it is late in the start of production, with pronounced alternate bearing and high productivity. Suitable for mechanized harvest. Resistant to limestone soils and drought, but very sensitive to "vivillo" ("soapy olive").
Its oil is fruity, with a light touch of apple flavor. Herbaceous green, lightly bitter but sometimes pungent and sweet. Very mild oil on the palate, with almond flavor.
Its fatty acid composition has a high content of oleic acid (72.3%), and medium linoleic acid (10.3%) and palmitic (11.2%). High vitamin E content, 419 ppm, and medium in polyphenols, 271 ppm. Its resistance to rancidity can be considered average, at 51.8 hours.






Lechín de Sevilla

This is the fourth variety for its cultivation surface, close to the 190,000 ha. Known by the synonyms Ecijana or Zorzaleña, it is one of the important varieties in Andalusia, predominantly in the province of Seville, and cultivated in the bordering provinces of Cordoba, Cadiz, and Malaga.
A variety on the decline, after suffering a serious decrease in its growing surface during the 70's.
It is a vigorous variety, late in the start of production, with good productivity and alternate bearing. It shows early maturation and has a medium fat. This is a rustic variety that easily adapts to poor and limestone soils and is tolerant to drought and cold.
Its oil has an intense fruitiness where the presence of green, bitter, and pungent attributes stands out for its balance. Lightly astringent and smooth on the palate. Light almond flavor.
Its composition has an average content of oleic acid (67.7%), and high linoleic (13.9%) and palmitic (13.1%). Low in vitamin E, 180.2 ppm, and high in polyphenols, 438 ppm. Its resistance to rancidity is average, at about 54.9 hours.




Arbequina

This variety is also known as Blancal. It takes its name from its area of origin, Arbeca, in the region of Les Garrigues, Lleida. It occupies a surface of about 80,000 ha., making it the most cultivated variety in Catalonia, and among the ten most important, nationally.
It is the basis for the Protected Designations of Origin Siurana, in Tarragona, and Les Garrigues, in Lleida.
A variety that is expanding rapidly, within its own growing area and in other regions and olive counties, both Spanish and abroad.
Medium in vigor, it is very early in the start of production, with high productivity and low alternate bearing. Early maturation. Not suitable for mechanization, because of its small size. Resistant to cold and drought and sensitive calcareous soils. High fat content.
Its oil is very characteristic for its fluidity and extraordinary fragrance. This oil is very fruity, with overtones of herbaceous green, very little bitterness and pungency, and a sweet taste. Very mild and smooth on the palate, with specific attributes of green almond and the flavor of freshly cut grass.
Its composition has a medium-low oleic acid content (63.3%), high palmitic (17%) and linoleic (13.9%). Average vitamin E content, 237 ppm, and low polyphenols, 218 ppm. Its stability can be considered medium-low, at about 41.6 hours.




Empeltre

It occupies an olive surface of about 70,000 ha., making it the largest in Aragon and the Balearic Islands, and extending to Catalonia, to the province of Tarragona, as well as Castellon and Navarre. It has also expanded in Argentina, particularly in the provinces of Mendoza and Cordoba.
It is known by the synonyms Aragon, Negral and Verdiel.
A variety with little expansion to date, but which, due to its resistance to Verticillium, is being considered as an alternative in many olive regions.
Vigorous, with upright growth, very productive and with little alternation in bearing. Late in the entry into production and early maturing.
Sensitive to frost and "leaf spot". It has a high fat content.
Its oil is characterized by its fluidity and fragrance. The juice is very fruity, with hints of apple, and balanced bitterness and pungency. Smooth, sweet and clear mature almond flavor, which gives a very defined personality.
It has an average composition of oleic acid (68%) and is high in palmitic (13.8%) and linoleic acid (12.7%). Vitamin E content is high, 363 ppm, as well as polyphenols, 376 ppm. Stability may be considered medium (50.2 hours).




Picudo

This variety, also known by the synonym Carrasqueña, is grown mainly in Andalusia, in the provinces of Cordoba, Granada, Malaga and Jaen, where it is the fourth ranking olive surface with an area of over 60,000 ha.
It is one of the fundamental varieties supporting the Baena Protected Designation of Origin.
A variety with little expansion even in its own cultivation area. It is vigorous and productive but with alternate bearing. Late in entering production and the ripening stage. Large sized fruit, resistant to detachment, making it difficult to harvest mechanically. It is tolerant to frost and calcareous soils.
It has a medium-high fat content, but oil is extracted with difficulty.
The oil is characterized by its fluidity, fruity fragrance and intense green. It has a slight taste of green apple, almond and fresh wood. Leaf-green flavors and balanced bitterness and pungency.
Medium-low content in oleic acid (62.7%) and high in linoleic (15.6%) and palmitic (15.8%); good content in polyphenols, 419 ppm, and high in vitamin E, 339 ppm. Its stability is low, at about 37.3 hours.





Morrut

Also known by the synonyms Morruda and Regués, it is grown mainly in the regions Montsiā-Baix-Ebre, in the province of Tarragona, and the north of Castellon, occupying about 30,000 ha.
A variety with little expansion in its cultivation area and no spreading into other olive regions.
Vigorous, very unproductive, late in the start of production and the maturation phase. Medium-high fat content. Sensitive to cold and drought.
Its oil is fruity, slightly bitter and slightly pungent, with a specific green almond flavor.
Its oleic acid content is medium-high (69.9%), medium in palmitic (11.8%) and high in linoleic (12.6%). Vitamin E content is medium, 242 ppm, as well as polyphenols, 304 ppm. Stability can also be considered average, at 61.1 hours.









Sevillenca

This variety, grown mainly in the south of the province of Tarragona and in Castellon, is also known by the synonym Serrana de Espada. This is a variety in regression, even in its own cultivation area, which occupies about 15,000 ha.
Vigorous variety, very productive and regular in production. Early maturing and early in the start of production. It is rather rustic, and sensitive to drought. It has a good fat content.
Its oil is fruity, slightly bitter and a bit more pungent, somewhat astringent but sweet and mild, and has connotations of almond, wood, and banana.
Its fatty acid composition has a medium oleic acid content (66.4%) and high in both palmitic (13.7%) and linoleic acid (14.5%). Medium-high content in vitamin E, 301 ppm, and low in polyphenols, 234 ppm. Its resistance to rancidity is low, at 36.7 hours.









Blanqueta

This variety gets its name from its peculiar maturation, where the fruit skin adopts a pearly white color (blanco, in Spanish). It is also known by the synonyms Blanquilla and Blanc Roig. It occupies about 10,000 ha. and its location is centered in the Valencia region, mainly in the province of Alicante.
A variety with virtually no expansion, except, to a limited extent, in its own cultivation area. Medium vigor, it is early in the start of production, presents little alternation in bearing, and average productivity. Pendulum in figure, with small fruit, making mechanized harvesting difficult. It has a medium oil yield.
Its oil is fruity, herbaceous green, slightly bitter and pungent, with overtones of fig, almond, and wood. Very fluid in the mouth.
Its acidic composition has a low oleic acid, about 55%, yet very high palmitic (20%) and linoleic (22.3%). Has an average vitamin E content, 299 ppm, and polyphenols, 302 ppm, with fairly low resistance to rancidity (31.7 hours).







Sikitita

'Sikitita'- chiquitita, (little one) in the U.S. - is the first olive variety selected for use in olive groves planted as hedges. The breeders of this variety are researchers at the University of Cordoba (UCO) and the Andalusian Institute of Agricultural Research and Training (IFAPA) as part of genetic improvement program for the olive tree that both institutions are conducting since 1991.
This variety comes from a cross of Picual (female parent) and Arbequina (male parent), the two most widespread varieties in the Spanish olive grove.
Its main feature is its very small vigor and compact and weeping figure, that keep its crown volume at around 70% compared to that of Arbequina. These characteristics make it particularly suitable for use in hedge plantations in high density, also called superintensive, where planting densities reach 2,000 olive trees / ha. In these plantations, the 'Sikitita' variety yields longer lasting hedges and provides significant savings in the costs of collection and pruning.
To achieve the correct formation of the trees of this variety is very important to carry out, from the first year of planting, continuous guidance of the tree branches, removing all lower branches. It has a very early entry into production and high productivity, good oil yield and extractability.
The olives show early maturing, and the oil exhibits very good organoleptic characteristics. Its main feature is its fruitiness and sweetness, with a fairly balanced bitterness and pungency. It is considered tolerant to winter cold.


FOREIGN VARIETIES

Following is a list of the foreign varieties whose oils stand out among those sold in Spain:

Koroneiki (Grecia)

It is the main variety in Greece, where it occupies about 60% of the country's olive grove surface. Variety of medium vigor, early in the start of production. Early maturation. High productivity and low alternation in bearing. Small fruit. High oil yield. Sensitive to cold and resistant to drought.
Currently expanding both in its place of cultivation and in other regions of the world olive growing surface.
Its oil, very fruity, transmits sensations of green apple, sour and more pungent, somewhat astringent, with overtones of green almond and figs.
Its acidic composition presents a high content in oleic acid (77.7%), medium palmitic (11.38%) and low linoleic acid (5,01%). It is high in vitamin E, 376 ppm, and average in polyphenols, 291 ppm. Stability can be considered high, at 79.66 hours.







Frantoio (Italia)

Variety of great importance in Italy, especially in the center of the country and more specifically in Tuscany. It is a highly productive cultivation, early in the start of production. Early maturation. Sensitive to cold. Average fat content. Tolerant to Verticillium.
A variety expanding rapidly across all of the olive grove geography, especially outside Italy.
Its oil is fruity and has a great fragrance. Little bitterness and pungency. As a specific characteristic, it presents a taste of apple and green almonds. It is slightly astringent and provides a ripe fruit sensation in the mouth. It is complex on the nose and palate.
Its acidic composition has a high content of oleic acid (71.5%), average linoleic (9.4%) and medium-high palmitic (13.66%). Its resistance to rancidity can be considered average, at about 58.17 hours.




Olive oil culture

Olive oil culture

I wanted these lines to show some of the varieties, the most significant, of the hundreds that exist in the olive oil world and allow us to contemplate an enormous range of types of oils. These oils provide a rich diversity of flavors for use in our cuisine, enormously prestigious in present day, which can encourage a differentiated use of these juices.
In my opinion, it is necessary to create an oil culture, similar to that existing in wine, so that the consumers may acknowledge, appreciate and properly use each of the possibilities offered by the diversity and sheer quality of extra virgin olive oils.

Marino Uceda Ojeda
PhD Agricultural Engineer
Researcher and Olive Oil Specialist


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