When new olive oils are fresh on the market it’s fun and illuminating to have an olive oil tasting, a sure way to prove that not all oils are alike. Indeed, differences in flavor, aroma and texture can be striking and might lead to thinking more creatively about how different oils can work with various types of food — in a sweet dessert, for instance, a simple green salad, or perhaps with an oven-braised fish.
A few things to remember when organizing a tasting: All your oils should be from the same harvest year, and not older than one year or they will have lost a lot their original oomph. And don’t even think about tasting anything but extra virgin, that’s where the character and individuality of oil comes in. Ordinary olive oil is like salad oil — it all tastes exactly alike.
How to begin olive oil tasting
Pour a couple tablespoons of each oil into separate glasses. Don’t feel you must have special glasses. The photo above shows my own hodgepodge, although I would do better to use a similar glass for each oil. And don’t make the mistake of trying to taste too many at once. Just three can be a good start, although five can be more revealing. Any more and palate fatigue sets in and it’s not fair to the oils at the end of the row.
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Note differences in color and texture. Then pick up a glass and hold it in your palm and, with the palm of your other hand on top of the glass, swirl to warm it. When you feel the temperature is right, take a deep sniff. Think about the aroma and what it’s like — artichokes or freshly cut grass? Old rancid walnuts or nail varnish remover?
Then taste, taking a small sip, not even a teaspoon, in your mouth. Hold it for a moment in the front of your mouth, then push it out to the sides. Finally, as you pull it toward the back of your throat, smile and suck in a little air on each side. And swallow. That last impression is most important — retronasal sensation is what sensory scientists call it — where aromas and flavors come together to define what it is you taste. You might sense fresh almonds or green tomatoes or tomato leaf; you might get a pine resin flavor. In most fine oils, you will sense some bitterness on the sides of your tongue, and pungency in the back of your throat when you swallow — enough sometimes to make you cough.
Professional tasters don’t dip bread to taste oil. If the bread is good, it will detract from the oil’s flavors, and if it’s bad, well, it will detract from the flavors as well. In between tastes, sip a little fizzy water or have a bite of tart green apple to clear your palate.
Here are a few oils I’ve recently had the privilege of tasting that have impressed me with their excellence. All are available in the U.S.
Capezzana: The Contini-Bonacossi family, well-known Tuscan wine producers, make oil from estate-grown Moraiolo and Frantoio olives, a typical Tuscan blend. The oil is a classic, but pleasantly mild and sweet without the intense, cough-producing pungency of many Tuscan oils. Clear green but unfiltered, it has a distinctive aroma of fresh-cut grass. ($42.95 for a half-liter bottle at Olio2go.com.)
COR Limited Reserve: California Olive Ranch, northern Central Valley, leads in the super-high-density production of good, reasonably priced, mass market oils. Limited Reserve, from the first harvest, is a more interesting unfiltered oil with a grassy fragrance and green fruit flavors. Not a lot of bitterness or pungency, but this unfiltered oil has the clean taste that should be a model for other California producers. (shop.californiaoliveranch.com, $17.97 for a half-liter bottle.)
Cru di Cures: From the Fagiolo sisters in the hills of Fara Sabina just north of Rome in Italy’s Lazio region, it is made with Frantoio and Leccino olives as well as a local cultivar, Carboncella. Dated to consume before 31 March 2014. Clear, unfiltered, pale green with gold highlights, it has a delicate fruity flavor but is well-balanced with bitterness and pungency in the after taste. (gustiamo.com, $27.50 for a half-liter bottle)
Laudemio Frescobaldi: Laudemio is an impressive association of 21 Tuscan olive oil estates, all making their oils according to the very strict parameters established by the group some decades ago. Frescobaldi is the easiest of this group to find in U.S. markets, an excellent example of a very carefully made oil, virtually fault free. But it is without the aggressive character typical of Tuscan oils — one that often puts off U.S. consumers. This 2012 harvest has a well-rounded flavor of fresh walnuts and a spicy peppery finish. A carton protects the clear bottle from light. ($40.80 for a half-liter at amazon.com)
Olio Verde: Made by Gianfranco Becchina in Castelvetrano, southwestern Sicily, from his own nocellara di Belice olives (so-called because they look like round green walnuts, noce in Italian). Dated 2012, from a very early harvest that began in late September, this pure-bred Sicilian oil has an almost Tuscan flavor profile; rich green fruit flavors, well-balanced with a spicy retrogusto. ($39.95 at www.Olio2go.com)
Pianogrillo: Made by Lorenzo Piccione from Tonda Iblea olives, a prestigious cultivar from Sicily’s Monti Iblei region. Dated 2012 harvest, to be consumed before 30 June 2014. It is not certified organic, but the producer states that no pesticides or chemical fertilizers have been used. Unfiltered, pleasantly lush in texture, green-gold in color, and very smooth in flavor with a typical fragrance of green tomato or tomato leaf. Pungency at the end adds interest — one of Italy’s most outstanding oils, IMHO. (gustiamo.com, $34.75 for a half-liter)
La Quagliera: Made near Pescara in the Abruzzo region of eastern Italy, just a few kilometers from the Adriatic, from local Dritta olives. Dated to consume before June 17, 2014. Brilliantly golden oil with the fragrance and flavor of ripe almonds. Very well-rounded and balanced between fruitiness and pungency, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. (gustiamo.com, $31.75 for a half-liter bottle.)
Séka Hills: A new arrival on the California olive oil scene. Séka Hills is made by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, an independent tribe of Native Americans in the Capay Valley (east of Napa, west of Sacramento), from 82 acres of arbequina olives, newly planted in the super-high-density or hedgerow system. A clean, fresh almond flavor, typical of this cultivar, is balanced by a lightly pungent tickle in the back of the throat. An excellent example of how California is meeting the challenge of European imports. (sekahills.com/olive-oil, $16 for a half-liter bottle)
Il Tratturello: Made by Francesco Travaglini at Parco dei Buoi in Molise, eastern Italy, from local Gentile di Laurino olives. Dated October 2012 harvest, for use before May 31 ,2014. Another very early harvest, with fresh almond flavors, lightly bitter and pungent, and notes of apple and fresh olive fruit. (gustiamo.com, $42 for a ¾-liter bottle.)
Vicopisanolio: Made by the family of Nicola Bovoli, in Tuscany’s Pisan hills, overlooking the Tyhrrenian Sea. Dated 2012-2013 season for consumption before December 31, 2014. Very early harvest, certified organic. Green and clear, with artichoke and fresh herbs, quite pungent on the finish but beautifully balanced. (gustiamo.com, $43 a half-liter.)
Photo: Olive oil tasting. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins