Olive oils can be as complex as wine. Producers from around the world proved that was the case at last week’s fourth annual New York International Olive Oil Competition. With 827 producers participating from 26 countries, it was the world’s largest competition of its kind.
Expert judges deliberated over four days, awarding Italy with the most awards, at 109, followed by Spain at 78 and the United States at 50. Awards were given according to different categories of olive oils (Best in Class, Gold, and Silver).
At the April 14 tasting event and award ceremony, bottles upon bottles of the winning extra virgin olive oils were on display. Some, like the Andante Intenso from South Africa (Silver), transformed as they stayed in the mouth: at first grassy like celery, then bitter, and finally intensely spicy. Others, like the Gooramadda Olives King Kalamata from Australia (Best in Class) and Oregon Olive Mill Arbequina (Silver) from the United States, stood out with a particular dominant note: fruity in the former, and buttery-savory in the latter. The Monterosa Picual (Gold) from Portugal made your tongue buzz, like Sichuan peppercorn.
Italy made a great comeback from last year, when it had one of the worst harvests in recent history. Judge Antonio G. Lauro said Italian producers’ dedication to quality is what made them succeed this year. Every step of production from olive-picking to bottling is critical. “Each step is dangerous for the oil quality,” he said.
The olives need to be picked at the right time (in Italy, it’s October, when the quantity is low, but quality is superior, Lauro explained), by hand or with machines that delicately remove the fruits, and then are immediately transported to the mill, where expert millers extract the oil. Natural gases need to be added to the storage tanks so that the oil does not oxidize, and the bottles should be dark-colored, so that light does not destroy the beneficial antioxidant polyphenols in the oil.
Meanwhile, Greece underperformed, having submitted 180 oils, but only winning 20 awards. Oleologist and judge Kostas Liris surmised that the reason was because while olive oil-making is steeped in Greek tradition, few producers actually know how to make high-quality oil. “Greek producers don’t pay attention to after-harvest treatment,” he said, referring to the process after olives are picked.
Despite that, president of the competition Curtis Cord said it was still a good year. The record number of participants meant “more producers than ever are focused on quality. That’s a remarkable transformation,” he said.
Customers can now purchase the award-winning bottles directly from the producers through an online store, shop.bestoliveoils.com, launched by the competition in March.
For the full list of winners, please visit bestoliveoils.com.