I am always on the lookout for unique wines from unique locations. And when I find one, I savor it, seeking out its aromas and flavors, its acidity and balance – all of the factors that create a new wine experience.
Over the years, I’ve developed my palate to a sensory level that instinctively judges a wine based on previous likes and dislikes. And I rarely judge a wine without pairing it with food. All of these factors can be somewhat daunting to evaluate, but instinct always takes over and I easily make a determination.
I use the same technique for another of my favorite (non-alcoholic) liquids. I enjoy its sensory pleasures and appreciate its health benefits as much as I do those of wine. And it is one of the components of the holy trinity of the Mediterranean Diet: grapes, wheat – and olives.
Olives and grapes – more specifically olive oil and wine – have a parallel history in the evolution of diet and society. From the early Greeks and Romans to modern day cuisines and lifestyles, both are enmeshed in European society’s basic fabric.
Their life cycles follow similar paths:
- The source material is abundant: multiple varieties, grown in numerous locales, under different growing conditions.
- The processing is parallel: the fruit is crushed, pressed, blended and bottled.
- Their fragility is well-known: the bottled product has a relatively limited shelf life and a limited bottle life once opened.
- Their respective health benefits are significant and have been well-documented.
- Thanks to new technology, and a dedicated commitment to quality by artisanal producers, the products are consistently the best ever.
My personal Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) favorites? Tuscan and Umbrian oils, with fresh, green and slightly peppery flavors with less than 0.8 percent acidity. I buy small bottles made of dark green glass to preserve their freshness and retard their deterioration from light. The best time of year to purchase EVOO is soon after the fall harvest.
Unfortunately, just as with wine, there is inferior olive oil. Inferior wine results from poor processing procedures, intentionally adulterated juice or unethical blending of inferior juice. So too with olive oil. A reputable study by the University of California-Davis sampled over 100 imported olive oils. Not ordinary olive oils, but the highly acclaimed much sought after “extra virgin olive oils” – as printed on the bottle labels.
What they found was startling; 73 percent failed to meet the standardized EVOO criteria established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Per the study: “The oils failed due to being oxidized, of poor quality, and/or adulterated with cheaper refined oils.” The problem is that the Department of Agriculture criteria are poorly regulated and abuse is widespread.
What? It can’t be. I’ve relied on bottle labels for years to differentiate the top-graded EVOO from lesser “officially designated” olive oils such as VOO and OO. Be very wary of the terms on those bottle labels. Italian? Much of their EVOO is imported from Spain. Pure? Some contain sunflower and other lesser oils. Fresh? Olive oil does not age well; it begins to noticeably deteriorate three months from pressing (both flavor and health benefits are affected). A good portion of olive oil pressed in Europe can take up to six months to land on store shelves in the United States.
The answer for consumers?
As is the case with many food products that are not “industrialized,” price is a significant deterrent. The best and most reliable EVOOs offered come from smaller, artisanal producers. The production cost is higher; therefore, the price is higher, which explains why 12 ounces of high-grade EVOO costs about the same as a gallon of lesser, questionable, EVOO.
Seek them out at reliable retail merchants. Taste the difference. Train your palate to recognize fresh EVOO by starting with domestic offerings that get to market much sooner than overseas brands.
Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and Program Director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.