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Spanish Gold

Not all fine olive oils come from Italy

Sam Gugino
Posted: November 29, 2000

Spanish Gold

Not all fine olive oils come from Italy

By Sam Gugino

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Look at that bottle of Italian olive oil you have in your cupboard. If it says "packed in Italy," chances are the oil did not come from Italy but from Spain, the world's largest producer of olive oil.

For years, Spain sold much of its oil in bulk to Italy, which bottled it and slapped on an Italian label. In recent years, however, Spanish olive oil producers have been putting their own names on the oils they make.

And why not? Spanish olive oils aremade under standards stricter than those of any other country. Many are good enough to make you forget where Tuscany is, often at prices more reasonable than those of better-known Italian oils. Spanish oils also offer a wide range of flavors, and they are now easier than ever to find. Four-and-a-half years ago, when Steven Winston opened The Spanish Table, a retail store in Seattle, he could only get his hands on a dozen Spanish oils. Today, he can choose from more than 50. "There is more acceptance of Spanish oils today. Olive oil consumers are like wine drinkers; they're looking for different tastes," he says.

Spain's olive oil standards are high, governed by the National Institute of Denominations of Origin (INDO), patterned after the French Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée system. The INDO designates an oil with a Denomina-ción de Origen (DO) when it demonstrates specific characteristics of where it was grown and when its manufacturer meets certain production standards. There are six DOs in Spain. Four of them -- Baena, Sierra de Segura, Priego de Cordoba and Sierra Magina -- are in Andalusia, where 75 percent of Spain's olive oil is produced. Catalonia, in the northeast, produces only about 4 percent of Spanish oil but has two DOs, Siurana and Garrigues.

Spain produces some 262 types of olives, 24 of which are used regularly in oils. The picual olive, which is primarily used in Andalusia, particularly in the province of Jaen, is the most widely planted olive in the world. I liken the taste of the picual to the assertively grassy quality of the Sauvignon Blanc grape of the Loire Valley and of New Zealand. This is not for everyone, which is perhaps why the picual is often blended with other varieties. The Nuñez de Prado ($29 per 500 milliliters) that Spicer favors, uses the picual as but one of 14 varieties in its marvelously complex oil. Columela, an outstanding value ($12 per 25 ounces) from Andalusia, combines the picual with the hojiblanca olive, giving the oil more brilliancy while toning down the picual.

The breadth of Spanish oils provides numerous opportunities for pairing with different foods. Intense oils like Pons or Almazara Luis Herrera are good when used sparingly on grilled vegetables or hearty greens. Simpler oils like Rafael Salgado are better on relatively mild fish such as halibut. In other words, don't wait for Spanish dishes to use Spanish oils. Nuñez di Prado is superb on bruschetta, the grilled bread rubbed with garlic that hails from a place called Italy.

Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock, to be published in December.

For the complete article, please see the Nov. 30, 2000, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 23.

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Where to Get It

Any good specialty market should carry a half-dozen Spanish olive oils. Here are some mail order sources.

Business City/State Contact
Classical Wines Seattle (800) 257-7225; www.classicalwines.com (Almazara Luis Herrera)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil of the Month Club Chester, N.J. (800) 665-2975; www.oliveoilclub.com
La Tienda Williamsburg, Va. (888) 472-1022; www.tienda.com
The Rare Wine Company Co. Sonoma, Calif. (800) 999-4342; sales@rarewineco.com (Rihuelo)
The Spanish Table Seattle Seattle (206) 682-2827; www.tablespan.com
Pasta Shop Oakland, Calif. (510) 547-4005; www.rockridgemarkethall.com

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