Extra-virgin olive oil, the lush, vibrant product of fresh olives, is premium by definition. At least, it should be. But as we reported in our story about supermarket olive oils, most of what you’ll find doesn’t deserve that prestigious label. The oils are either mislabeled as a higher grade; mishandled so that their bright, complex flavor turns rancid; or even fraudulently blended with other, cheaper oils and passed off as the real deal.
Only one of the oils we sampled in that tasting, from California Olive Ranch, was a cut above the rest—“rich” and “fruity,” with a “peppery aftertaste.” At $0.59 per ounce, it’s one of the pricier supermarket options but costs just a fraction of what you’ll spend on a bottle of premium extra-virgin. Which led us to ask: Since the good stuff sells for twice as much as or more than California Olive Ranch does, what are you getting for your money? We decided to find out.
Our supermarket olive oil tasting taught us that freshness is the most important consideration when buying extra-virgin olive oil, since it begins to degrade as soon as it’s pressed, and this depreciation happens even faster when the oil is exposed to air, heat, and light. So we narrowed down the countless number of producers worldwide by first zeroing in on premium oils produced in the Northern Hemisphere; that way, every product we chose would be roughly the same age. Then we carefully purchased oil from only the most recent harvest. The final lineup of 10 included oils priced from $0.94 to $2.13 per ounce (plus shipping) from France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Tunisia, Portugal, and the United States. All of the oils are sold online by reliable retailers; some are also available in gourmet shops or select supermarkets.
Our first step was to sample the oils plain, which made it immediately clear that these oils did indeed taste remarkably fresh. As we then tasted them tossed with butter lettuce and a little salt and finally drizzled over a bowl of warm cannellini beans (a typical application in parts of Italy), we marveled at how each oil seemed as distinct as a fingerprint, with flavors we’d never experienced with supermarket oils: “artichoke,” “apples,” “flowers,” “tomato stems,” “watercress,” and even “dark wood.” They didn’t just enliven the lettuce and beans; they elevated the vegetables’ flavors to something out of the ordinary.
By the Numbers
The oils tasted top-notch to us, but to be sure that they truly qualified as “extra-virgin,” we subjected them to chemical testing and a sensory screening. Olive oils are rated for quality through a two-part evaluation, according to standards set by the International Olive Council, the industry’s worldwide governing body. To pass the sensory test, the oil must not only have what experts call “zero defects” but also possess “some fruity flavor.” Among the chemical standards, an oil must not exceed certain levels of free fatty acids, peroxides, and other chemical parameters that would indicate olive deterioration, poor processing or storage, or oxidation.
For a sensory perspective, we sent a randomly coded sample of each oil to a group of trained tasters for their expert opinions. In general, the panelists agreed with our assessments of most of the oils and used an array of descriptive terms for distinct flavors such as “artichoke” and “tropical fruit.” As for the chemical tests, the premium oils passed most measurements of freshness and quality with flying colors, whereas in our testing of supermarket oils, most of the products barely squeaked by.
So what actually accounts for the dramatic differences in quality between premium and supermarket oils? Mostly, it boils down to the control a producer has over the production process—from the quality of the fruit to how quickly and carefully the olives are pressed to how well the freshness of the oil is preserved during bottling, storage, and transport.
Hitting All the Right Notes
Olive oil industry experts use spider charts to display flavor nuances in high-quality oils, rating the intensity of 10 flavors on a scale of 0 to 10, Well-balanced oils such as Gaea Fresh (plotted below) hit the full spectrum of flavors in nearly equal measure, confirming our own perceptions of this oil’s particular flavors, including nuances of artichoke, grass, and pungency.
To keep costs low, producers of mass-market extra-virgin olive oils usually purchase cheap bulk oils from all over the world and blend them at a facility thousands of miles from where the olives were grown and pressed. This not only suggests that these producers have little to no control over the handling and freshness of their oils but also explains why supermarket extra-virgin olive oils usually lack the distinct flavors that premium oils are known for.
Conversely, the premium oils we tasted are produced in smaller, vertically integrated operations, many of which have run on the same site for hundreds of years. This means the olives are grown, picked, and pressed—and the oil bottled and sold—in a single location or within a strictly defined and limited area, and thus these oils are fresh, distinctly flavorful, and carefully monitored for quality.
We think these premium oils are worth every penny. And while we singled out one particular crowd-pleaser with “ultrasmooth flavor” (a Greek product called Gaea Fresh), in a break from our usual procedure, we didn’t rank the oils. Instead, we categorized them by flavor profile, since choosing the “best” bottle is a matter of personal preference. Think of it as comparing different styles of red wine as opposed to comparing a lineup of Pinot Noirs.
How Do You Take Your EVOO?
Identifying other flavors you like can help you pick a premium extra-virgin olive oil that suits your taste.
Given the prices of these premium oils, we’ll still keep a bottle of our supermarket winner, California Olive Ranch, on hand for day-to-day use. But after tasting that product against a “nicely balanced” crowd-pleaser such as Gaea Fresh and a “complex and bold” powerhouse such as McEvoy Ranch, we were convinced that these oils are something special and are worth the splurge when you want to breathe life into salad greens, punch up a piece of grilled fish, or simply dunk bread in a superb oil.