Issue No. 35: The Case of the Missing Olive Oils

Our spring shipment of imports arrived at our warehouse a few weeks ago. Each year, this delivery is the one that includes our newest harvest of olive oils—in this case, we just got the 2014 harvest. It takes until May for the new oils to arrive because after the olives are picked and pressed around November the oil is left to settle for a few months to naturally decant out any sediment, and then it takes several weeks for the oil to make its way across the Atlantic on the boat. This year our import was missing a lot of the oils we usually bring in.

It wasn’t a surprise that the oils were missing. 2014 was an epically bad year for olives in Europe. Spain’s olive harvest was down 50%. Italy’s harvest was down about 35% overall, and in some regions, like Tuscany, it was down nearly 90%. What happened?

Blame it on the weather.

Let’s talk about Italy. The winter of 2013-14 was mild. So mild, in fact, that it did not kill off the insects that chow down on olives. Then summer 2014 was rainy and humid, giving the insects the perfect conditions to proliferate. The larvae hatch inside olives, feasting on the fruit and boring holes that let in fungi and bacteria that give the olives an off, moldy flavor. As if all that weren’t enough, in September a hail storm hit the countryside and knocked much of the not-yet-ripe fruit to the ground.

With all this bad luck, it seems like an olive farmer should pray for a cold, insect-killing winter and a hot, dry summer. But not too cold. Tuscans still talk about the winter of 1984-85, when three weeks of frigid weather killed off most of their olive trees. (They also tell me that winters like that come around about every 30 years or so—which would mean we’re due to have one any time now.) And not too hot and dry, either. The south of Spain had a terrible drought last summer that decimated their olive harvest.

Too little water, no olives. Too much water, no olives. Too cold, no olives. Too warm, no olives. Rather than being a surprise that there was such a horrible harvest in 2014, it’s beginning to feel like it’s a miracle there’s ever a good harvest.

OK, I get it, the harvest was terrible. But what does that mean for an olive oil enthusiast?

For the majority of inexpensive grocery store olive oil there probably won’t be a huge impact. The price may go up a bit, but most olive oils on the market—including most extra virgin oils—are made with a blend of olive oils from who knows how many sources. Take a look the next time you’re in the olive oil aisle at the store. While the bottle may proudly announce that it’s “imported from Italy” on the front, if you turn it around to the back it may say something like, “Made with select, high quality extra virgin olive oils from Italy, Spain, Tunisia, and Greece.” There’s also no clear indication of when any of the oil was pressed. Those oils—from different countries and possibly even different years—are all blended together to get a consistent (read: boring) oil without a whole lot of flavor. If one of their sources of oil had a bad harvest, they’ll just supplement the supply from somewhere else.

For olive oils grown and produced on a single estate the situation is far more dire. It doesn’t just mean that there’s less oil available. In many cases it means no oil at all. Nearly all of the oils we sell come from a single estate, so there was a huge impact for us. By the time farmers went to harvest the olives, there wasn’t much fruit on the trees. And in many cases, like at Tiburtini just outside of Rome and at Cacchiano in Tuscany, what little fruit there was made oil of such poor quality that they shut down the mills and decided not to press any oil at all. We have a collection of a couple dozen or so olive oils that we have sold every year for a decade or more, but this year we don’t have nine of our regular oils because none was produced last year. With other oils, such as the crowd-favorite Maussane, we have our whole year’s supply in stock right now, and when it sells out, it’ll be gone til May 2016. (That is, assuming this fall’s harvest is a bit more successful!)

Rather than leave our olive oil shelves empty, we’ve decided to bring on a handful of new oils in a one-time-only olive oil pop up shop.

We taste dozens of new olive oils every month. We bring on maybe two new ones a year. But right now in our pop-up shop we have eleven new extra virgin olive oils. It’s unprecedented! We’re excited about the newcomers, but they’re only here for a limited time. When they sell out, that’s it, they’re gone. I just tasted all of ’em; here are a few notes on some of my favorites:

Weka Olive Oil comes to us from New Zealand by way of some former New Yorkers. It’s made with the varietals of olives you typically find in Tuscany and is likewise bold, grassy, a little bitter, yet soft and supple in the finish.

Capirete Olive Oil comes from the Andalusia region in southern Spain. It’s made from picual olives and has a nice green banana aroma and a mild but bright flavor that’s an excellent match for fresh greens—or a grilled steak.

Tondo Olive Oil is from the southeastern corner of Sicily. Made from Tonda Iblei olives, this one is complex and nuanced, starting soft and sweet then building to big, fruity, and finally slightly bitter notes.