Extra Virgin Olive Oil 101
Why Greek Olive Oil is Superior
Greece is a country located at the tip of the Balkan peninsula, at the crossroads of the European Union. Nine geographic regions comprise Greece: Macedonia, Central Greece, the Peloponnese, Thessaly, Epirus, the Aegean islands (including the Dodecanese and Cyclades), Thrace, Crete, and the Ionian Islands. Stamatopoulos & Sons certified extra virgin olive oil comes from the Peloponnese, specifically the southwestern area in Messinia. Our family estates are located in the villages of Christianoupoli and Mouzaki. The microclimate is ideal for Koroneiki olive production, which eventually turns into olive oil. Read more about the koroneiki olive here.
FROM THE USITC (UNITED STATES INTERNATIONAL TRADE COMMISSION) 2013 STUDY:
“Greece plays an important role in global olive oil production, but little of its oil enters world markets as a Greek product. Rather, most Greek olive oil is consumed domestically (mostly through direct sales to consumers), as Greece has the highest per capita olive oil consumption in the world. Most of the remainder is exported to major bottlers in Italy for blending with extra virgin olive oils from various sources. Greek extra virgin oil is known among blenders and bottlers as a component that raises the overall quality and flavor profile of a blend. Recent industry and government initiatives seek to reduce the sector’s dependence on bulk exports to Italy and to increase competitiveness by focusing more on selling differentiated Greek product.
GREEK OLIVE OIL PRODUCTION OVERVIEW
“Greece is the world’s third-largest olive oil producer, after Spain and Italy. Until recently, Greek production levels were subject to the alternate bearing cycle of the olive tree, but the variation between crop years is now lower, likely due to the increased use of irrigation and pruning techniques that reduce the effects of this cycle.
“The Olive-Growing Sector is among the most important agricultural sectors in Greece, accounting for 20 percent of agricultural land and 60 percent of the total number of holdings. Olive holdings, the majority of which are small, total approximately 531,000. Most of the olive groves are dedicated to the production of olives for oil, although the table olive sector is also important in Greece. Some Greek olive varieties, such as Kalamata, are used for both oil production and table use, so it is difficult to separate total olive-growing area based on its use. In general, however, Greece harvests at least 10 tons of oil olives for every ton of table olives each year. (Eurostat database (accessed March 8, 2013); IOC, 'Table 1: [EU] Production,' November 2012.) In general, Greece’s climate and soil are well-suited to olive growing, and olive oil is produced throughout the country. Greece produces a high share of extra virgin oil, much of it high quality, owing to its favorable climate and soil, reliance on olive varieties that tend to yield high-quality extra virgin oil, and timely harvesting and milling of olives. The regions of Crete and the Peloponnese are the most concentrated growing areas, accounting for 65 percent of olive oil output. Most of the newer, intensive farms are located in these regions.
"Greece relies more heavily on a single olive variety than Spain or Italy, with the Koroneiki olive accounting for about 80 percent of production. The Koroneiki variety produces high-quality oil for which there is strong demand. Other common varieties are Manaki and Athinolia, grown primarily in the Peloponnese.
"The average farm size in Greece is only 1.6 ha, just slightly larger than in Italy. About 70 percent of Greece’s olive-growing land is considered “disadvantaged” by the EU, meaning that it is either steeply sloped or has other geographic features that make it difficult to farm. Often olive trees are the only crop that can be grown on the land. Because many farms are small and located on difficult terrain, most olives are hand harvested, and fewer Greek farmers employ modern production methods than either Spain or Italy. The sector’s low efficiency is reflected in the fact that Greece accounts for 22 percent of EU oil olive acreage, but just 14 percent of its olive oil production.
FACTORS AFFECTING COMPETITIVENESS
HIGH COST OF PRODUCTION
"Greece has high costs of olive oil production, largely owing to its reliance on traditional, small-scale growing and milling methods. Several factors contribute to the high cost of producing olives. Greece has a prevalence of old groves with declining tree productivity and yields, resulting in high per-unit costs of production. Low yields are also attributed to a lack of irrigation in most of the country’s olive groves. Further, wage rates are high and rising even as rates of labor productivity remain low. Labor costs were identified by a Greek bank as a major limitation on Greece’s competitiveness in the olive oil industry. Also, only about half of olive growers are considered professional farmers, and many operators rely on activities besides olive growing to supplement their income. Some only produce for personal consumption. Costs are also high in the milling sector, which, as noted earlier, is dominated by smaller mills using older technology, unable to benefit from economies of scale.
"Although production costs are high, Greece also enjoys a reputation for producing high-quality olive oil. In a good year, as much as 80 percent of Greek olive oil meets the standard for extra virgin grade, the highest share in the Mediterranean. Even within the extra virgin category, Greek oils can be differentiated from others because they have desirable flavor profiles and score well on chemical tests measuring quality. This is partially because oil milled from Koroneiki olives tends to be the highest in polyphenol content and low in FFA among all olive oils. Greek oils are also considered among the fruitiest and most robust. As a result, they are in high demand by bottlers for blending with other extra virgin oils to raise the overall quality and increase the flavor of the final product. As California growers who have planted Koroneiki explain, “Blending Koroneiki into our other EVOOs [extra virgin olive oils] ‘kicks up’ an oil’s flavor and fruitiness, giving the oil a better and more complex taste.
LACK OF MARKETING AND RELIANCE ON BULK EXPORTS TO ITALY
"Despite producing mostly high-quality extra virgin oil, most Greek oil is exported in bulk for blending, rather than as single-source branded products. The Greek association of olive oil manufacturers attributes reliance on bulk sales to a lack of consumer awareness of the quality of Greek oil in overseas markets, owing to insufficient focus on consumer education and marketing on the part of Greek producers. As a result, at least 80 percent of exports are in bulk in a typical year. Most bulk exports are to Italy and used in blends by bottlers, and as much as 20 percent of the content of oil blended and bottled in Italy may be of Greek origin. This sales channel dates back many years and is firmly entrenched. Because producers have few alternative marketing outlets, Italian buyers often procure Greek oil at prices below market value with cash. Longer-term contracts are rare, a source of frustration for one U.S. blender who had experience purchasing Greek oil. While farmer cooperatives in Greece have attempted to increase the market power of the farmers, they generally “perform poorly, leaving room for private buyers to pay lower prices to producers.” An analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the sector in Greece concluded, “A progressive reduction in the dependence of Greek olive oil on bulk exports to Italy is the key to significant improvement in its international success and the basis for a differentiation strategy that will increase the export price that can be garnered for the product.” Though Greece has made some progress in reducing the share of its exports flowing through the established Italian channel, product differentiation remains a major challenge for the Greek industry.”
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Kalamata & Koroneiki Olives
Kalamata is a region of Greece located in Messinia on the Peloponnese and is well-known for producing traditional snacking olives which are purple, almond-shaped, and plump. While Kalamata olives are ideal as table olives due to their large size and meaty texture, however, Stamatopoulos & Sons does not use them to produce oil since the Koroneiki olive is far superior. Kalamata olive trees bear leaves that are twice the size of other olive varieties.
Stamatopoulos & Sons certified extra virgin olive oil from Greece is mono-varietal which means it is crafted from one type from olive. Koroni (where the koroneiki olive gets its name) is a town located in Messinia, close to the Stamatopoulos & Sons family estates, located in Mouzaki and Christianoupoli. The koroneiki olive is considered the “queen of olives” in Greece and is recognized world-wide as one of the preferred olives for oil production. The fruitful koroneiki tree has flourished in this microclimate for more than 3,000 years. It is grown and harvested solely for olive oil production.
While koroneiki olives have a smooth flavor profile in terms of producing velvety olive oil, these particular olives taste quite bitter and are not intended for snacking. The leaves of the koroneiki tree have two tones: light and dark green, while the olives vary from light green to dark purple. Some koroneiki trees have both green and purple olives. Koroneiki trees are constantly changing and have their own unique appearance - similar to snowflakes - since the appearance of the leaves combined with the bi-colored olives and sometimes windy environment makes for quite a sight.
Koroneiki is one of the most prized olive trees in both Australia and California, countries which do not have native olive trees. There are over 400 varieties of olives in existence today. Any variety olive tree could have been selected to be in their olive groves, however, they choose koroneiki because it is considered such a high-quality olive oil. Koroneiki olive oil production is sometimes considered more difficult to process than other olives due to the petite size of the koroneiki. Since it is such a small olive compared to other olives, it takes many more olives to create the same amount of olive oil. Moreover, koroneiki olives are tricky to harvest because they are smaller than other varieties. The quality of the koroneiki olive oil compared to some other olive oils is so superior, in fact, that if they were mixed together the koroneiki olive oil would improve the overall quality of the olive oil.
The koroneiki olive produces olive oil with some of the highest polyphenol content possible, which means it boasts powerful health benefits and uses. Polyphenols are natural antioxidants that have been credited with reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer, among many other diseases. Free radical damage is drastically reduced with the presence of polyphenols, as they protect the human body. Koroneiki olive oil has a prolonged shelf life compared to typical olive oils due to the incredibly elevated polyphenol content. Koroneiki olive oil also boasts low free fatty acids (FFA) which is a highly-prized characteristic.
According to Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, Free fatty acidity or free acidity is “An important chemical parameter for determining the quality of an olive oil, which is part of the olive oil grading system of the IOC, the EU, the USDA, the Australian Olive Association, and many other bodies that oversee olive oil quality. FFA measures the percentage by weight of the free oleic acid (see Fatty acids, Oleic acid) contained in a sample of olive oil. In general terms, FFA indicates the breakdown of the basic fat structure of an oil, whether because of poor quality fruit (due to bruising, olive fly infestation, fungal attack) or, most commonly, by delays between the harvest and the crush. Although a low FFA is no guarantee of good quality, as a rule of thumb the higher the FFA, the more likely the oil is to be of poor quality. The level of 0.8 percent FFA set by the IOC and other regulatory bodies for the extra virgin grade is far too high to guarantee good oil: excellent extra virgin oil frequently has an FFA of 0.2 percent or lower, and anything over 0.5 percent is likely to be inferior.”
Stamatopoulos & Sons extra virgin monovarietal koroneiki olive oil also comes in an organic variety, certified by Bio Hellas. Read more about it here.
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Defining extra virgin olive oil
According to Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, “The highest quality grade of olive oil, which according to standards established by the IOC, the EU, and other governing bodies, must meet a series of chemical requirements (free fatty acidity of 0.8 percent or lower, peroxides at less than 20 milliequivalents per kilogram, etc.), and be able to pass a panel test which demonstrates both that it possesses some detectable level of olive fruitiness, and that is free of taste flaws.”
Flaws are “official off-flavors (and odors) in olive oil that are listed in olive oil legislation and quality protocols, and that, if present, help to determine the quality grade of the oil. They indicate the poor quality of an oil, often caused by an unhealthy or overripe fruit, flawed milling techniques, faulty storage, or other errors in the oil-making chain. The sixteen official taste flaws listed by the IOC in EU law are: Fusty (atrojado), mustiness/humidity, muddy sediment, winey/vinegary, metallic, rancid, heated or burnt, hay/wood, rough, greasy, vegetable water, brine, esparto, earthy, grubby, and cucumber.
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Organic Certification by BioHellas
Stamatopoulos & Sons is proud to offer an organic olive oil which is certified by BioHellas in Greece. The certified organic olive oil is grown on Bobby Kalogeropoulos’ farm which is located in Christianoupoli, Messinia, Greece. The process of certifying the olive oil as organic includes having a 20-year history of the property which specifies that no chemicals, pesticides, etc. are used on the land. Moreover, best practices in the areas of harvesting, production, irrigation, and the general growing process are observed. These olives were never mixed with other olives; they are mono-varietal koroneiki to maintain the integrity of the organic olive oil.
Greece’s rural development plan is an important source of funding for promotion for organic olive oil. They emphasize growing organically to farmers and stress importance of buying organic olive oil to consumers. Unfortunately, there is not a large budget put toward these efforts. Unlike Spain and Italy, which contribute at least 50 percent of the funding for their plans, Greece is only expected to contribute 15 percent (and for some Greek proposals, as little as 5 percent, due to an exemption that was granted in the wake of Greece’s financial crisis). The quality improvement measures provide funding for organic production, and promotion measures fund television, radio, Internet, and print campaigns, as well as product exhibitions, for marketing organic Greek olive oil within the EU.
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Filtered VS Unfiltered Olive Oil
According to Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, Unfiltered oil is “Olive oil that has not undergone filtration. The choice between unfiltered and filtered oil is mainly a matter of taste. While filtration does extend shelf life and appears to improve stability during storage, it may slightly reduce the intensity of tastes and aromas in certain oils. Among premium extra virgin olive oils, the consumer’s main choice is between the clarity and brilliance of filtered oils and the cloudy density of unfiltered oils.
"Olive sediment might accumulate in Stamatopoulos & Sons certified extra virgin olive oil because it is unfiltered and might appear slightly cloudy. It is important to note that olive oil appearing cloudy due to sediment (unfiltered olive oil) is different from olive oil that has been chilled or is somewhat cold in temperature. When the cool olive oil returns to room temperature, it returns to a liquid state. Unfiltered olive oil is fluid and can appear cloudy usually toward the bottom of the bottle."
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Hand-picked VS Machine Harvest
Hand-picked is a term that describes the process that takes place when olives are harvested from the tree. Most olive groves incorporate heavy machinery to remove olives from the tree, referred to as machine harvest. Stamatopoulos & Sons extra virgin olive oil is made from olives that have been plucked by hand, never a machine. We use the best practices and most traditional ways of processing olive oil, which begins with hand-picking. While it is labor-intensive, we believe it to be the most authentic way to begin the process. Olives that are hand-picked are each closely inspected to ensure there are no imperfections. Olives that are harvested by machine are usually imperfect and might contain pits, be bruised, sliced, rotten, punctured, and more.
Greeks have a special relationship with their olive trees. Each tree needs tended to individually because no two are alike. Machines are incapable of giving the care that olive tree needs to produce quality fruit.
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