Tasting olive oils
I recently returned from a two weeks holiday on the island of Rhodes, in Greece. Rhodes is a beautiful island, full of vegetation - although the wildfire back in summer left a lot of marks - and literally full of olive trees: from young ones, to really, really old ones, with truly large tree diameters, and lots of branches.
Rhodes, as many other regions in Greece - apparently 60 % of the agricultural land of Greece is planted with olive orchards - is mostly planted with the Koroneiki variety. As i was on holiday somewhere in the first half of October, small Koroneiki olives, from green to purple were literally everywhere, waiting for the harvest. They were just beautiful: small, dense, literally looking as much of a fruit as you could see an olive...which - many don't think of it that way - is indeed a fruit.
I knew that the greeks had the biggest per capita consumption of olive oil in the world, being also the third biggest producer of olive oil after Spain and Italy, yet i had not tasted a lot of greek olive oil in the past. I also knew that greek olive oil can and will compete with Italian and Spanish ones, and that it is a regular winner of awards at olive oil competitions. So i had to try some. More exactly, i wanted to see how the Rhodian olive oils taste.
I entered a small shop in the eastern part of Rhodes, in Kiotari, called "Evexia", which - George, the owner explained to me - means "body and mind". There was an instant spark: me and George got on a right foot right away. Yet one thing surprised me from the beginning: when i asked George if i could sample some olive oils, he gave me a small glass, telling me to put my finger in it, and taste it from the finger. I was as much surprised by his suggestion, as he was by my question: "if that is ok with you, i would rather sip from the glass"
I'll never forget his reaction, full of shock and admiration: "you want to drink from the glass? it is the first time ever someone comes to my store and tastes olive oil like this!"
Our encounter continued with about 4-6 other olive oils, three local wines, Rhodian tapenade, honey and other goodies, and i loved his embracing me with hands wide open. Yet, it is his reaction, and his final words that he wrote me a couple of days later, that made me write today:
"I was impressed with the way of tasting that you have which i will never forget"
Tasting olive oil
Just as a reminder: While you may have seen it a lot, using bread for tasting olive oil is generally a bad idea, and will never truly reveal the qualities of the oil.
Olive oil can - and should - be tasted from sample glasses, by sipping, tasting, swallowing: pretty much the same as in wine
Although the eyes play an enormous role in evaluating wines, you'll be disappointed to know that the color of an olive oil will say little about its quality. I know, i know: you really would like to associate that grassy green with spring, and herbs, and sun yellow with melon and citrus aromas. The reality is that you will often have beautifully colored olive oils, with terrible taste, and the other way around.
The color of an olive oil, most often, says pretty much nothing about its quality
This is the reason why in official olive oil tastings, blue colored glasses are used for sampling: this way the sampler is prevented of making a biased decision, by not being able to appreciate the color at all.
Its blue color prevents you from seeing the color of the oil and has a shape that makes the aromas accumulate for later inspiration. (https://www.aceiteolivaonline.com/en/oil-tasting-glasses-34)
As in tasting wines, the smell is a very important factor in assessing the flavors of an olive oil.
An extra virgin olive oil is always assessed by three (and only these three) characteristics: fruitiness, bitterness, pungency.
While you can only assess the latter ones by tasting it, the nose will always give you a very good starting point in assessing the fruitiness.
A good olive oil is an olive oil displaying balance between the three characteristics:
While some olive varieties may be more pungent (Koroneiki, Picual, Nera di Oliena, Leccino), some other may be milder (Kalamata, Arbequina): but that does not make one or the other better or worse. It is about the balance in all of these three attributes.
That is why, grades from 1 to 10 are used for assessing the oil. The golden rule is that no attribute will differ by more than two points from the others. This is what a balanced olive oil means.
Example for a balanced, quality olive oil:
Fruitiness: 5 points
Bitterness: 4 points
Pungency: 6 points
And now an example for an oil which is out of balance, and although being an extra virgin, it is not of high quality:
Fruitiness: 2 points
Bitterness: 5 points
Pungency: 9 points
It will be probably on very rare occasions that you enter a shop, and have the possibility of tasting oils from blue glasses with cover glasses. These are best to be used when tasting, out of several reasons like:
opportunity of warming the oil by rotating the glass
A simple glass will yet do for you to be able to give the oil a first assessment. Just follow these steps:
Close your eyes, and take a deep smell. Or several. Try to identify the flavors: it can be everything, from grass, flowers, spices to fruits such apples, bananas or citrus fruits.
Take a sip. Think of tasting wine. Don't be shy to sip and make hissing sounds. This process adds oxygen to the oil, which helps releasing its hidden aromas.
Spread it throughout the mouth. It is normal to be fatty. Let it touch your rear part of the tongue, for this is the most important when tasting olive oils: it can best detect bitterness and pungency.
Swallow and try to assess:
how bitter was it
how pungent was it
did you cough on it
Finally give the aftertaste a note. How long does the aftertaste remain? It is important to have a long aftertaste: this defines the complexity of the olive oil. What is not normal is to have a greasy, fatty aftertaste.
Finally, for a better and comprehensive explanation of tasting olive oils, i highly recommend reading the book "The olive oil masterclass - Lessons from a professional olive oil sommelier"