The Spanish Olive Oil Sector’s Three Commitments in The 21st Century

The Spanish Olive Oil Sector’s Three Commitments in The 21st Century

2019/17/05 - There is no doubt that Spain has led global olive oil production during the 20th century and nobody doubts that it will continue to do so over the next few years. Even more undeniable when they produce nearly one out of every two liters of the world’s total olive oil production during each campaign. The 2,625,000 ha. (6,486,516 ac.) of Spanish olive groves produce oil on cruise control, based on a deep farming know-how, optimizing agronomic techniques and improving yields per unit. Spain knows how to produce olive oil and it is proving so. But, taking the dualism Spain-quantity as an undeniable reality, the question is: Does Spain also lead the high-end extra virgin olive oil market today?

Let’s talk about great oils, the real olive juice, those that are made using only healthy olives, harvested directly from the tree and at their optimum degree of ripeness, which is when they are quickly and carefully transported to the mill and are immediately milled in facilities where cleanliness has turned into obsession, where the entire process is carried out at low temperatures… oils that once they have flowed out of the centrifuge are quickly filtered and in the cellar are repeatedly purged to ward off any hint of organoleptic pollution, oils that are preserved in pristine and inert deposits, and that are ultimately packaged in opaque and waterproof containers, introduced to the consumer in the most gallant of commercial presentations, capable of competing with the most exclusive wines, liquors or even perfumes… these are Premium EVOOs, the spearhead of the olive oil sector in the 21st century, the advance guard of high quality, ambitious projects that are difficult to develop, yet although not always recognized, help the army that approaches from behind, the millions of tons that we must market each year, because they represent the very best that there is… the robustest fruitiness, the freshest and the most balanced to have ever been extracted from an olive.

Harmony and complexity at the service of gastronomy, of the choosiest chefs, juices so full of nuances that each one pairs with different dishes; single-varietals full of personality and blends with an amazing mouth and nose, an explosion of aromas and flavors ready to dress and enhance from the simplest and most traditional of foods, such as bread or vegetables, to the more elaborate dishes of the nouvelle cuisine.

But, besides being the most delicious, they are also proving to be the healthiest among extra virgins. All that cleanliness, both in the field and during the extraction process implies that it better respects and preserves what we call the unsaponifiable fraction: that army of minor elements that exist in the fruit from its inception and arrive unperturbed before the consumer, as the less we interfere with the treasure olives keep while still on the tree, the better it will be; and the ones which least disturb those elements are the great extra virgins, because their juice is extracted at the right time with the lowest possible noise.

A Long And Hard Road

But, how has the leading global producer achieved this level? The road has been long and hard. Spain has advanced exponentially in terms of quality in the last few years; in such a way that our country not only leads in production, but nowadays nobody argues that Spanish oils triumph around the world. No doubt, out country’s innovations in quality over the last decades are based on several transcendental milestones.

First, we must look back at the 1970s, when continuous milling systems based on quick centrifugation made their way into Spanish oil mills, and multiplied performance by 10 over the old presses and accounted for the beginning of the end of huge granaries set-up in mill courtyards. This managed to shorten the waiting times for olives, and that was but the first step. Three-phase systems, at first, and two-phase subsequently, meant that today over 98% of oil mills in Spain use centrifugation and more than 85% have adopted the two-phase system.

Later, programs for the improvement of quality in the 1980s where production processes were audited in various Spanish regions, determining the sections where quality was being lost, proved to be crucial. Programs captained by unique technicians who detected and conveyed how things should be done at each point in the process, from the tree to the bottle. The 1990s were devoted to such important concepts as early harvesting in search for the optimum degree of ripeness, the separation of ground and tree olives, the requirement and need for cleanliness in the production process or the emergence of stainless steel in the hoppers and storage containers, factors which together have increased the percentage of extra virgins obtained at the mills.

And with the new century came a second revolution for quality, the one we are now experiencing, where certain oil mills go beyond extra virgins and seek to extract the afore mentioned Premium oils, in search of infinite fruitiness, an absolute fresh nose, an impossibly harmonious mouth… And that is being made possible through tasting oils in the laboratory when the olive is still on the tree in order to decide the exact time for the fruit; introducing cooling systems at different parts of the process to lower the temperature of the olives, the paste or the oil; purging and cleaning at each stage to remove moisture and unwanted solids, thus avoiding the formation of ethanol and its esters… These are all fine tunings thought up by maestros and technicians that were difficult to imagine but a few years ago and which are already fully integrated, and are a part of the race for the perfect oil.


Now that we have established that Spain produces both quantity and quality, the olive oil sector should reflect on certain aspects which will be vital in the coming years:

  • Profitability: Taking into account that the production of higher quality oils carries higher production costs (lower yields to start with, lower industrial yields due to handling, higher packaging costs, etc.), and considering the perception and eagerness of the international consumer for the final product, is this bet profitable from an economic standpoint? Should we accompany these Premium oils with a marketing and PR campaign in line with its excellence? Let’s look at Italy and learn from our Transalpine competitors who have sold extra virgin olive oil across the world as a gourmet product liked to the Mediterranean culture.
  • Communication: When placing the stakes on Premium EVOOs, marketing is essential to convince the consumer of the differential price they should pay for these oils. Considering that the main sales pitches for EVOOs on the international market are, in this order: health, its organoleptic characteristics associated with culinary applications, the culture and tradition linked to the cultivation of olive trees -the most emblematic in the Mediterranean area- and the environmental factor of olive groves, as they are the largest farmed forests… Which are the most convincing sales pitches, among those mentioned, for consumers to understand the differential prices in the Premium EVOO tier?
  • The name of the oils: Much has been debated in recent years on the commercial designations of olive oils. There are conflicting views on whether if they are confusing, or not, for the consumer; and if whether or not the three existing categories are enough to differentiate the different types of olives that are on the market. Some choose to add a new -voluntary- category for the most exquisite oils that further delimits the physicochemical and organoleptic requirements beyond extra virgins. Would it be good to define a new commercial category for Premium EVOOs, or would this contribute to further confusing the consumer?

José Mª Penco Valenzuela, Manager of the Spanish Association of Olive Municipalities (AEMO) for the EVOOLEUM GUIDE 2019.

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