Just as Italian cuisine has become pervasive in our culinary culture, so too has its primary ingredient: olive oil. Olive oil's use in so many dishes and its mounting health benefits make it a must in home pantries, with many households stocking two or more kinds. And while we can now get good olive oil from places as far flung as New Zealand and Uruguay, olive oils from Italy's Tuscany region remain the ones by which all others are measured.
"I really do believe that Tuscan oils are the best in the world. If I didn't, I'd be selling a lot of others," says Emanuel Berk, owner of the Rare Wine Co. in Sonoma, Calif., which has been importing high-end Tuscan oils such as Prunatelli, Monte and Vetrice since 1995.
Prunatelli, Monte and Vetrice are made from olives on the Grati family estate in the hills east of Florence. Each bottling comes from a single grove, and thereby expresses individual character. Like estate wines, estate olive oils usually represent the highest quality. "When the estate puts its name on the oil, like Capezzana or Badia a Coltibuono [two leading Tuscan estates], it is more or less guaranteeing that the oil will be good," says Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of The Essential Mediterranean (HarperCollins).
Classic Tuscan oils, says Berk, have "an archetypal richness, weight, intensity and palate persistence that other oils don't have." Jenkins characterizes these oils as having "a green flavor, variously described as artichoke, green apple and grassy, like Sauvignon Blanc. Other oils tend to be rounder or nuttier."
In addition, Tuscan oils have a pepperiness on the finish that can sometimes be overpowering to the uninitiated. Paul Ferrari, owner of the San Leandro, Calif.-based A.G. Ferrari Foods, which imports Tuscan oils like Le Corti and Tenuta di Valgiano, refers to the levels of this pepperiness as "one cough, two cough or three cough. And I mean that as a compliment."
There is also a cachet about Tuscan oils, which is one reason why well-regarded wine estates such as Tenuta San Guido, Fontodi, Castello Banfi and Castello di Volpaia make them, even though they yield little profit.
What makes Tuscan oils the liquid gold standard? It's not the olive varieties. Most oils are blends primarily of Frantoio and Moraiolo olives along with Leccino, Pendolino and smaller amounts of several others. Frantoio is highly aromatic and fruity, with an intense color. Moraiolo provides grassiness and pleasant bitterness. But their main attribute, says olive oil expert Darrell Corti, owner of Corti Brothers in Sacramento, Calif., is yield. "It's the same reason why Cabernet is planted in certain places instead of Merlot. It produces," Corti says. Unlike wine quality, olive oil quality is not adversely affected by high yields.
Instead, as Berk points out, "It's really about terroir and what the grower does with the crop." His favorite areas are the hills in northern and eastern Chianti, especially Rufina. "When you get away from the coast and to higher elevations you can get some really incredible oils," he says.
Coastal areas of Tuscany and more southern regions have warmer climates that turn out riper, softer oils. Interior areas of higher elevation are cooler, so the olives ripen slower and thus create oils of more intense fruitiness and greater structure.
Almost as important as terroir is when and how the olives are picked and processed. Unlike many fruits (including other olives), which are picked at the point of perfect ripeness, Tuscan olives are handpicked at the point of perfect underripeness. At the critical juncture the fruit is still green but has the optimum levels of phenols and antioxidants. Phenols provide flavor and aromatics; favorable antioxidant levels promote healthfulness.
Armando Manni has made phenols an obsession in the creation of his two Tuscan oils from Montalcino, Per Mio Figlio and Per Me ("For My Son" and "For Me," respectively). At about $30 for 3.4 ounces, they are perhaps the most expensive olive oils in the world. But Manni argues that they are so flavorful one would have to use three times as much of other Tuscan oils to achieve the same flavor intensity. "We work with the University of Florence to check the status of the phenols from September until the olives are picked [usually in late October]," Manni says. By scientifically pinpointing the time when olives have their maximum phenols, Manni says the phenols in his Per Me oil can be 10 times higher than the minimum required by the Tuscan Olive Oil Consortium, which administers the regulations of Indicazione Geografica Protetta (IGP), similar to the IGT for wine.
IGP standards for olive oil are less stringent than those of the DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, which is comparable to wine's DOC). In Chianti Classico and Terre di Siena, for example, extra virgin oil (the highest category) can have no more than .5 percent oleic acid for the DOP, .6 percent for the IGP. Under the DOP, harvested olives must be processed at no more than 82.4° F for "cold-pressed" oil. While there is no requirement, many top oils are bottled without filtration.
In some cases, producers have banded together to create consortiums with stricter standards. Laudemio is the best known of these and includes producers such as Marchesi de' Frescobaldi, whose oil comes from Rufina, one of the specified growing areas. For many, the individual estate is more important than the DOP or consortium label. "That's not to say you can't do with olive oil what Grange does with wine [i.e., make great wine from purchased and estate grapes from several areas]," Berk says. "But at this stage in the fine olive oil industry, I'm more comfortable with a particular estate."
Ferrari, who carries Dalle Terre di Leonardo, an IGP oil made by a cooperative in Montalbano, demurs. "I think the distinction between an estate and a cooperative is artificial. Some estates are larger than cooperatives." Unlike estate-grown grapes, which are processed entirely on-premises, estate-grown olives are frequently pressed in communal mills.
I found Leonardo, with its pleasantly grassy aroma, richness and one-cough pepperiness, quite comparable to Le Corti, a Chianti Classico oil. However, neither was as intense as the two-cough (at least) Laudemio by Frescobaldi or the slightly less peppery but solid Volpaia. Castello Banfi showed real artichoke flavor with a pleasant bitterness and long finish. A notch below was Tenuta San Guido.
I very much liked both Manni oils. Per Me was ripe, with heat that built to a crescendo in the back of the throat without going over the line. Per Mio Figlio had a roundness and butteriness that none of the other Tuscan oils had. Still, they weren't worth their stratospheric price given that my favorite oil, the Prunatelli 2002, costs $18 for 500ml. It was bursting with artichoke and cardoon flavors yet it was remarkably smooth on the finish. To prove wrong the notion that Tuscan oils must be consumed within 18 months, Berk sent me Prunatelli 1996, his all-time favorite. Mellowed by time, it was still a vibrant green gold and had a rich, herbal taste. Olive oils don't improve with age like some wines; over time, some of their assertive pepperiness softens.
Light, air and heat are enemies of olive oil, so it should be kept well-sealed under wine cellar conditions. Cooking tends to mute the flavor that sets good oil apart. Unless you can afford it, use the best oils only as a condiment to finished dishes or in cold preparations. Try it on pizza just out of the oven, over grilled fish or poultry or brushed on roasted meats.
Great olive oil drizzled over vegetables such as grilled asparagus or steamed broccoli rabe is sensational. So too over perfectly ripe local tomatoes, especially when paired with fresh mozzarella and basil. The best use of Tuscan olive oil, however, may be the most elemental, brushed on grilled country bread that has been gently rubbed with garlic or sprinkled with sea salt. It doesn't get any better.
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock (Chronicle Books).
How to Get It
A.G. Ferrari Foods Corti Brothers De Medici Imports Pasta Shop Rare Wine Co. Zingerman's
San Leandro, Calif.
(877) 878-2783, www.agferrari.com
(845) 651-4400, www.demidici.com
(510) 547-4005; www.rockridgemarkethall.com
(800) 999-4342, www.rarewineco.com
Ann Arbor, Mich.
(888) 636-8162; www.zingermans.com
A.G. Ferrari Foods
De Medici Imports
Rare Wine Co.