SA steps up to the plate in olive oil industry

What is the best olive oil you can buy in South Africa? Olive oil from Spain, Italy and Greece – to name a few imports – crowd the shelves. But the perception that an international label necessarily means supreme quality, is challenged by the South African Olive industry association that says consumers can buy high quality locally produced olive oil- closer to the source. 

The best locally-produced olive oils from the 2014 season were announced at the Absa Top Five awards at an event hosted at the Knorhoek Wine Estate in Stellenbosch this week.

High-quality South African olive oil
“The olive oil currently being produced in South Africa is of a very high quality and this competition is an incentive for all our producers to do better and to position South Africa as one of the best quality producing countries in the world,” said Giulio Bertrand, honourary member of the South African Olive Industry Association, during his speech at the awards ceremony.

For Bertrand, South African olive oil is “better than anywhere else in the world”.

There is an estimated 8 000 hectares of olive trees in South Africa – 6 000 hectares of which are situated in the Western Cape.

The 10 finalists for the Top Five awards are the top achievers from the South African Olive Awards of the South African Olive Industry Association,  announced at the end of August.

The Winning Extra Virgin Olive Oils
The Top Five Awards for the best extra virgin olive oils in South Africa come from producers Rio Largo, Willow Creek, Morgenster, and Groote Vallei.

Rio Largo
Two oils from the same producer were in the top five – Rio Largo Premium Blend Extra Virgin Olive Oil (intense) and the Rio Largo Gold Extra Virgin Olive Oil (medium).

Nick Wilkinson, owner of the Rio Largo farm, situated between Worcester and Robertson, attributes the success of his olive oil to an efficient and modern processing plant – with a computer-managed system linked to Italy for expertise. Wilkinson explains that there are three senses involved in olive oil tasting. “The [fruity] aroma is the first sense, followed by bitterness in your mouth, followed by the spiciness which you feel in your throat.”

“The idea is to get them to balance out.”

He describes Rio Largo’s olive oil as a “fruity nose, a balance of pungency and bitterness with a sense of artichokes, green tomatoes, freshly cut grass and almonds”.

Willow Creek
Willow Creek’s Arther Goodger says that the secret behind the success of their Estate Blend Extra Virgin Olive Oil is that the terroir (microclimate) of the region is “very close to the Mediterranean climate”. The farm is situated in the Nuy Valley, along the Langeberg mountain range in Worcester.

The extra virgin olive oil from Morgenster is a blend of 10 varieties of olives.

Italian-born Giulio Bertrand, owner of Morgenster, first visited South Africa in 1975. “I wanted to produce an Italian olive oil in South Africa.” In 1994, Bertrand imported 2 000 olive trees from Italy and planted them on his newly acquired estate in Somerset West.

Groote Vallei
John Acland, of Groote Vallei says his boutique farm in Tulbach as a “small fish in a massive pool”. The extra virgin cold pressed olive oil, which is exported to Germany, has “a grassy peppery taste to the palate, with a kick of rocket when you swallow it”.

What the judges look for:
Reni Hildenbrand, originally from Germany, and a member of the tasting panel who judged the olive oils, says there are three main factors to look out for when judging olive oils: Mouth feel, balance and harmony.

An olive oil with an attractive aroma may, however leave an after-taste in your mouth- this “mouth feel” needs to be balanced. The balance refers to consistency between the level of fruitiness, bitterness and spiciness of the olive oil. Finally, all three elements must be in harmony.

Quality Assurance Seal
Hildenbrand says it doesn’t matter which olive oil you buy, but strongly advises consumers to look out for the Commitment to Compliance (CTC) seal on South African-produced olive oil bottles. This quality assurance seal ensures that what is on the label is correct (if it says “Extra Virgin Olive Oil”, it is extra virgin), and that the olive oil is free of defects. The date of harvesting and a best before date should also be on the bottle – olive oil has a lifespan of 24 months from the time of harvesting.

The judge herself acknowledges that olive oil tasting is subjective. In the end, says Hildebrand, the type of olive oil you decide to use will depend on your personal preference.

The competition is closed.

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Shireen Mukadam
Shireen Mukadam works from johannesburg, south africa. Southern Africa Researcher, Amnesty International. Chai latte lover. From Cape Town to Geneva & back. I tweet in my personal capacity. Shireen Mukadam has over 963 followers on Twitter.

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