It starts with the olive varietal
Just like wine made from Chardonnay grapes tastes different than a wine made from Merlot grapes, olive oils made from different types of olives can have totally different flavors. There are thousands of different olives in the world. Some are milder. Some are more bitter. Some are more buttery. Each will impart its own flavor when pressed for its oil.
Harvesting and production
Olives ripen in the fall. They all start green. If you leave them on the tree long enough they will all turn black. If you want a pepperier, grassier tasting oil, it’s better to look for one that was harvested earlier in the season when the olives were greener. If you’re looking for a richer, more buttery oil, you’re better off looking for one harvested later in the season when the olives were blacker. Not all olives ripen at the same time, so an oil maker looks for a certain mix of ripeness on their trees—green, brown, purple, black—before picking.
Generally, the best oils are pressed just hours after picking, while poorer quality, less flavorful oils may take longer and be treated less carefully. There’s one significant exception, however. In southern France, a few producers still use a traditional method where the olives are intentionally left to sit for a few days to ferment before processing, creating deep black olive flavors and rich, buttery textures.
Know your region
Around the Mediterranean, olives have been pressed to make oil for thousands of years. Different regions have developed their own particular takes on oil. Many regions have unique olives found nowhere else, like the bold coratina that’s widespread only in Puglia. Different regions also have different standards for how ripe olives should be when harvested, or how to handle the olives after picking. Since these traditional varietals and methods are often quite localized, knowing where a Mediterranean olive oil comes from can often be a shorthand into predicting what it will taste like.
Away from the Mediterranean, oils from, say, California or New Zealand are generally less steeped in tradition and instead have selected varietals that aim to create a particular style. In my experience, they tend to be on the greener, more peppery end of the spectrum—the so-called “Tuscan style” named after the Italian region that’s become an international standard.
Annual weather patterns matter too. Having a hotter, drier summer can make for a more intensely flavored oil; rain during the autumn harvest may water the flavors down. The only way to truly know what each year’s harvest is like is to taste. At Zingerman’s, we do that step for you. Each year we taste all the new harvest oils. You can read our tasting notes at on each oil’s page on our website.
One final note about regionality: at the grocery, take a close look at olive oils with notes on the label such as “Imported from Italy.” Often, this means the oil was bottled in Italy, but not necessarily that the olives were grown there. Big olive oil companies frequently blend oils from many countries. If that’s the case, somewhere in the fine print on the back label you should be able to learn more about where the olives in this particular bottle were grown. But don’t count on that to mean one bottle will taste much different from another of the same brand. Companies that are big enough to blend oils from that many places are usually trying to sell a consistent (and usually not especially interesting) oil, not one with notable subtleties and nuances.
Zingerman’s olive oil flavor profiles
We sell more than 30 olive oils. Which one is for you? At our website, you can sort our oils by these four flavor profiles to find one that suits you.
Light & Elegant
The most delicate oils. For an olive oil novice, this is where I recommend starting. These oils are often made near the seaside, which makes them a perfect match with baked fish.
Buttery & Silky
Lovely, rich, smooth oils—without any bite. It you want to taste the fruity parts of the olive without the peppery kick getting in the way, here’s the place to look. Good as a substitute for butter or when you want to play up the sweetness of an oil.
Smooth & Assertive
Intense oils, but not over the top. These have loads of flavor but not as much spicy kick as some others. In my opinion, these are the best all-around oils for pasta, dipping bread, and more.
Rustic & Fruity
The most intense oils. Loads of grassy flavor with a peppery, spicy kick. Use these alongside bold foods, like drizzled over grilled steaks or vegetables.