How Are Italian, Californian, Greek, and Spanish Olive Oils Different?
Gone are the days of only one type of olive oil—Italian—filling store shelves. Many markets now carry oils from a wide range of countries, including from France, Greece, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Tunisia, and the U.S. Within those countries, there's a lot of variation, so it would be impossible to characterize one country's oil with a few key terms. Yet there are also some helpful things to know about the big four—Greece, Italy, Spain, and the U.S.—in terms of what they're each known for and the differences you find within them. Here, we'll explain to help you shop for the type of olive oil you like best.
Greek olive oils aren't as well known as some of their European counterparts (read: Italian and Spanish), but they're definitely worth checking out—after all, Greece is certainly famous for its olives. And 14 percent of the country's agricultural land is covered by olive groves, a larger percentage than any other European country. Many Greek olive oils have a smooth and welcoming taste, and you'll find plenty that are well priced yet are good enough to drizzle on food as a finishing oil that imparts color, rich flavor, and extra fullness. The Peloponese region and Crete produce most of Greece's olive oil.
Italian olive oils still dominate the market, with loads of options at many price points. Be aware, though, that regulations allow companies to purchase oil from many different countries in Europe, bottle it in Italy and then label it a "Product of Italy." In broad terms, olive oil from Italy varies greatly depending on the region; northern olive oils tend to be delicate and mild; ones from the central area are often stronger, with grassy notes; and those from the south, which accounts for the bulk of Italy's olive oil production, have a drier and more herbal flavor.
If Spain is known for anything in the olive oil world, says Teresa Perez Millán, general manager of Olive Oils from Spain Interprofessional Organization, it's for the variety of extra virgin olive oils it produces. The country is home to more than 200 different olive varieties, and each one provides characteristic aromas and flavors. You'll find ones with intense and fruity flavors, and others with milder, less intense aromas and flavors. Olives are cultivated almost everywhere in Spain, but mostly in the southeastern part of the country, particularly in Andalusia. Olive oil from Spain tends to be more yellow than Italian (which can have a green hue), due to the country's temperate climate.
California is where to go for American olive oil. The state has more than 400 producers; over 75 olive varieties grow there, which results in proprietary blends unique to California. What sets them apart from oils from other countries, says Vincent Ricchiuti, founder of Central San Joaquin Valley-based Enzo Olive Oil, is how fresh they are. "It takes less time for California olive oil to get from tree to bottle and then to your home pantry," he explains, "meaning the finished product you're able to enjoy is much fresher and available at a much more affordable price than any olive oil imported from Europe." This is due in part to the fact that it takes less time to bottle and ship olive oil produced domestically, and also to the way olive trees in California are cultivated—producers can harvest faster because the trees are planted more densely. Typically, California's dry climate produces olive oil with a more robust, nutty flavor.