Australia on track for record olive oil harvest

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 7th April 2011

Australia is on track for a bumper year for olive oil, with a record production of 17 million litres of extra virgin oil expected for 2011. Favourable climatic conditions have boosted the industry after lower-than-anticipated yields last year.

Olive harvesting is underway now in most states across the country and will continue through to July, according to the Australian Olive Association, the umbrella organisation for Australia olive growers and olive oil producers.

Most of Australia’s olives are grown in the east, south and west of the country, with Victoria producing the majority of extra virgin olive oil, followed by Western Australia and South Australia. Most of the world’s major olive varieties are grown throughout Australia and harvest time varies across the states.

“Generally speaking, the main harvest time is May, with all harvesting generally over by July,” said Lisa Rowntree, Chief Executive Office of the Australian Olive Association. “Queensland tends to be the first to start and finish due to its climate, with the rest of the country following.  Queensland experienced very trying conditions at the beginning of the year, so there may not be as much EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) from them as hoped. However, what they do produce will be sought after due to the oil’s milder and fruity style, which is a winner with consumers.”

The extraction of oil from olives is a relatively straightforward process, involving only a few critical steps. Australian extra virgin olive oil producers know that if they use good quality olives, process them quickly after picking, employ the services of a spotlessly clean processing plant and don’t strive for excessive extraction, quality extra virgin olive oil will result.

Extra virgin olive oil is made from perfect olives crushed as soon as possible after the olives are picked. The oil is extracted without the use of chemicals or excessive heat to ensure that its health benefits, flavour and freshness are maximised.

Extra virgin olive oils can be intensely flavoured and can also be strongly pungent. Many ‘early harvest’ styles often fit in this category. Others can be very fruity with only hints of bitterness and pepper, while ‘late harvest’ styles are typically mild with very ripe fruity flavours.

There are different grades of olive oil, and it’s important to know what you’re buying, said Rowntree.

“Extra virgin olive oil is oil that has never been through a refining process and is acknowledged to be superior due to its taste and health benefits. Oils labelled as ‘pure olive oil’ are usually a blend of extra virgin or virgin and refined olive oil, and lack both the olive flavour and the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil. The proposed introduction of Australian Standards for olive oil will further ensure that consumers get what they pay for.

“Refined olive oil is produced from an oil refinery process which removes most of the beneficial minor components that make true extra virgin olive oil so desirable.

“Beware of terms like ‘light’ and ‘extra light’ as these terms refer to a lack of flavour only and have nothing to do with calories or colour.”

This year’s estimated extra virgin olive oil crop will be available from August onwards and Leandro Ravetti, Senior Horticulturist and Olive Specialist at the Modern Olives Laboratory in Victoria, says that the quality of the 2011 crop has exceeded expectations.

“What we’re finding this year is that the conditions have really helped the trees to grow. The summer rainfall also means that the early harvest oils are indicating a milder, mellow and very balanced flavour.

“The good conditions also mean that trees have put on a significant amount of growth, so we should be on track for a good year in 2012 with 20 million litres predicted,” said Leandro.

To ensure that consumers can be certain that they are buying the highest Australian quality, the Australian Olive Association recommends that consumers seek out oil with the Code of Practice symbol, which guarantees the authenticity and quality of certified Australian extra virgin olive oil.

Those growers who sign up to the Code are required to ensure that their oils meet defined quality criteria, are Australian, and meet taste requirements before being able to display the certification symbol on their product. The Code of Practice symbol distinguishes quality certified Australian products from all others in local and international marketplaces.

There are currently 230 Australian producers signed up to the Code of Practice including grocery retailer ALDI, which uses the Code as its own internal standard for all of its extra virgin olive oils.