by Andrew Chalk
Olive oil prices vary from $2.50 for 17 fl. oz. of Walmart own-brand “Great Value” brand, up to brands that cost as much per fluid ounce that the Walmart brand olive oil does per bottle. Every price point in between has an example.
Why this difference? Is it all a carnival show or is it, like wine, a case of price denoting quality and distinctiveness? Recently I fortuitously came across a tasting that would throw light on this. Casas de Hualdo, is a Spanish olive oil producer located near Toledo in the Casilla-La Mancha region of Spain. They harvest approximately 1,680 acres of olive trees (as well as other crops and a herd of 1,800 Manchega sheep that provide fertilizer and, soon, cheese).
Maria Reyes is their Vice President North America. They entered the U.S. market a year ago and are now available in Sprouts, Central Market (Texas), and numerous specialty stores on the east coast. She told me how the biggest part of her job is showing consumers that there is a real difference between the cheapest olive oil brands and the more expensive ones.
She cited the major differences:
Quality focused brands are dedicated to creating a certain style. The cheap brands are focused on meeting a price target;
Quality focused brands source their olives from a specific, named place (usually the producer’s own groves). Cheap brands not only lack a named origin but are likely to be sourced from multiple countries. One big-selling brand I saw recently had a back label that included the words “Packed in Italy with select extra virgin olive oils from Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal”. Likely the proportions and exact producers change over time reflecting changing prices. Also, the word ‘select’ carries no designated meaning here. All grapes, good and bad, are ‘selected’ by someone (or someone’s machine).
Quality brands are more likely to varietally label, just as many wines do. So olive names like arbequina, picual, and manzanilla will become part of the label, and maybe, eventually, part of the language.
Be aware that there is no such thing as a GMO olive so all olive oils are non-GMO and the presence of the logo on the label is not a signifier of quality. Also, while tasting olive oils is similar to tasting wine one important difference is that, whereas many wines improve with age, olive oil always deteriorates. This is why oils are not vintage dated. Maria recommends finishing an open bottle in 30-60 days.
The ultimate test is in the tasting so Maria lined up the three oils for me, as shown in the photo above. Casas de Hualdo Arbequina, Casas de Hualdo Picua, and Brand X. A big-selling example of the cheap oil purporting to be extra virgin (I still, to this day, do not know exactly which brand).
Casas de Hualdo Arbequina: A medium fruity nose with hints of bananas and apples. In the mouth it is viscous with medium bitterness,
Casas de Hualdo Picual: Powerful aromatics. Aroma of green leaf. In the mouth viscous, robust, intense, peppery and complex. Leaves a long sensation of bitterness and pepper on the palate.
Mystery Cheap Brand: What a difference. Mild nose with hints of lemon. In the mouth the texture is decidedly more watery. Tastes oily without distinction and the phenolic backbone so pronounced in the two previous olive oils is almost non-existent.
Tasting olive oils side-by-side is a revelation. It has steered me away from cheap oils for dressing food, vinaigrettes, etc. For cooking, I would not use oils as good as this on account of the cost, but would avoid the cheap oils (Casas de Hualdo is coming out with a lower-priced ‘cooking’ line).
Casas de Hualdo olive oils retail for approximately $11 for a 250ml bottle.