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.