Just like wine, good quality olive oil has many complex aromas and flavours, and can be analysed for it’s various unique qualities through similar techniques to wine tasting.
Many factors will influence how an extra virgin olive oil will smell and taste, from the types of olives used, how they were cultivated, at what point of ripeness they were harvested and how the oil has been stored.
A good quality extra virgin olive oil will have distinct vegetable/fruity qualities, and a bitter/peppery/spicy kick.
Conversely, a low quality, non-extra virgin olive oil will usually simply smell and taste of oil.
Pretty much every olive oil producing region will have opportunities for olive oil tasting experiences, but if you want to have a bit of fun with friends and family at home, here’s a short guide to follow.
Virgin Olive Oil Only
If you are interested in tasting multiple different olive oils, it is important that they are at the bare minimum virgin olive oils (ideally extra virgin), as tasting low quality oils will not be a pleasant experience!
So, a quick reminder of what the main requirements for extra virgin olive are:
obtained using solely mechanical means, cold-pressed with no additional processes or filtrations.
must have a free acidity level (oleic acid) of no more 0.8%, or 0.8g per 100g. For virgin olive oils this level is no more than 2%, or 2g per 100g.
must have a ‘pleasant’ aroma and flavour (i.e. not rancid)
Before you get started with your tasting session you’ll need to organise a few things.
Besides (obviously!) your bottle of Boccadoro Extra Virgin Olive Oil you will need small quantities of other oils – try obtaining oils from a variety of different countries and regions as each will have their own dominant characteristics for you to identify. A minimum of 3 is recommended.
You will need several glass containers, how many depends on the number of different oils you have to taste. Traditionally a dark coloured glass (blue is considered the best) is used by professionals so the colour of the oil doesn’t influence any judgements, but wine glasses are perfectly sufficient. Shot glasses will also be fine as you only require a couple of teaspoons of oil per person to conduct the test.
For obvious reasons ensure the glasses are clean and have no traces of anything else (washing up liquid, limoncello etc.) that could affect the taste of the oil.
It is recommended that you don’t eat anything else for around 30 minutes before you conduct the tasting as this could influence the results. If you have eaten something, then try to clear your palate with some plain bread and sparkling water before starting the test.
It is essential to be able to cleanse your palate between tasting the different oils, so having some pieces of apple on hand (ideally a tart variety such as Granny Smith), washed down with sparkling water.
You will also probably want some pens and paper to keep notes on each of the different oils you are tasting as you go along.
The IOC (International Olive Council, nothing to do with the Olympics!) have extensive tasting sheets that professionals use when judging olive oils, but to simplify the process we recommend you judge each oil on 3 main criteria:
fruitiness (from the aroma)
bitterness (on the tongue)
pungency (at the back of the throat)
Decide on a scale of 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 for each criteria so you can calculate a score for each oil. It is also worth adding a 4th element to judge the ‘balance’ between the other 3 criteria.
This means once you have completed your tasting you will be able to rank the oils you have tested.
The IOC processes try to make the tasting process as objective as possible, but the words used to describe an olive oil are highly subjective, so they have developed a list of both desirable and undesirable terms to help guide you through the process – the full list is pretty extensive, so we’ve selected a few of each of the good and bad to give you a sense of what you’re looking for.
So in addition to each oil’s ‘score’, note down the dominant descriptive words you can identify.
Apple/Green Apple: indicative of certain olive varietals
Bitter: considered a positive attribute because it is indicative of fresh olive fruit
Buttery: creamy, smooth sensation on palate
Floral: perfume/aroma of flowers
Fresh: good aroma, fruity, not oxidised
Fruity: refers to the aroma of fresh olive fruit, which is perceived through the nostrils and retro-nasally when the oil is in one’s mouth
Peppery: stinging sensation in the throat which can force a cough (see pungent)
Pungent: Peppery: stinging sensation in the throat which can force a cough (see peppery)
Acetone: aroma of nail polish remover, associated with winey defect
Burnt/Heated: caused by processing at too high a temperature
Flat/Bland: oils which have no positive or negative aroma or flavour characteristic of olive oil; may indicate presence of refined olive oil
Greasy: flavour of diesel or petrol caused by equipment problems
Musty: moldy, humid flavour created by wet olives that have been stored for too long before pressing
Metallic: oils that have had prolonged contact with reactive metal surfaces either during processing or storage
Rancid: the flavour of oxidation that occurs as the oil ages, often described as ‘stale nuts’
Vinegary: sour/vinegary flavour caused by aerobic fermentation of olives during processing
Now all the preparation is complete, you can move on to the tasting itself.
There are 3 main stages to the taste test – essentially SMELL (to judge fruitiness), SLURP (to judge bitterness), SWALLOW (to judge pungency).
Pour a small quantity of the oil into the glass – only a couple of teaspoons is required.
Hold the glass with one hand, cover the top of the glass with the other, and gently swirl the oil around for 10 to 20 seconds. This will serve to warm the oil and line the inside edges of the glass which helps to release the oil’s aromas.
Then place the glass beneath your nose and inhale slowly and steadily, taking note of any aromas you can identify.
The scents should be fruity – try to identify if the aromas are more suggestive of green fruit (for example green apples or citrus) or ripe fruit (ripe tomatoes or berries) or a mixture of the two. Higher quality oils (and therefore deserving of a higher score) have a more complex set of aromas and a pleasant combination of green/ripe.
Note down your score for this oil’s fruitiness.
The second stage of the taste test involves ‘slurping’ a small amount of the oil around your mouth, making sure some air can mix with the oil as it coats your tastebuds. Take some time to note any flavours you can identify.
Quality olive oils will all have a bitterness to them – usually noted towards the back of the tongue. A consistent bitterness is indicative of an earlier harvested oil (from greener olives), whereas less bitterness with a hint of sweetness is indicative of a later harvested oil (from riper olives).
If the flavour is in any way vinegary, rancid, metallic, musty etc. then it is the sign of a bad oil.
After completing the ‘slurp’ stage, simply swallow the oil in your mouth, judging the impact it has on the back of your palate and throat.
A high quality olive oil will be high in polyphenols and tannins, which cause a drying/stinging sensation (pungency), whereas lesser quality oils will only have a mild or negligible affect. If you need to cough it’s usually the sign of an excellent oil!
You should now be in a position to judge the scores for the bitterness and pungency criteria for this oil, and also a score for how the three elements combine for an overall balance of the oil.
You can now move on to the next oil, and when all are completed, identify a winner!
Judging the best olive oil is clearly subjective, different people have different preferences, one person may prefer a riper, sweeter oil; others may prefer more bitterness. You may have different favorites dependant on what you are eating/preparing. One thing we do know for certain is that once you’ve experienced a truly excellent quality extra virgin olive oil, you’ll never want to go back to the bog standard supermarket brands!
We’d love to hear about your olive oil tasting experiences, and any feedback you have on our Boccadoro Extra Virgin Olive Oil, so please let us know through email@example.com!