Olives are stone fruits and just like fresh squeezed juice, olive oil is the juice of an olive. As there are hundreds of variety of cultivated olives, each produces its own varietal of olive oil with its own unique flavor characteristics. Not only that, but soil conditions, weather, and how the olives are processed impacts how the olive oil will taste.
Professional tasters look for three main characteristics in olive oil: fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency. Fruitiness is the olive oil’s aroma or smell. Bitterness is the taste that should appear on the back of the tongue, and pungency is the stinging sensation in your throat after the oil has been swallowed. Note that all three characteristics must be present. If one is missing, the olive oil is defective.
So how does one find those main characteristics and eventually choose a favorite varietal?
This step-by-step guide will help you in discovering your favorite varietal olive oil.
1. Start with a mild olive oil. Olive oil usually comes in three flavor intensities; mild, medium, and robust. After you have gone through the steps of tasting a mild one, work your way to medium intensity and then to the robust olive oils. Sip some water in between each tasting.
2. Pour 1 - 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a small cup.
3. Warm the olive oil in your hands. Nest the cup into the palm of one hand and cover the top with your other hand. Gently twist the cup in your hand for about 20 seconds to warm the oil. This releases the aroma in the oil.
4. Make a note of the nose (Fruitiness). Raise cup to your nose and tuck nose into the cup, then take a deep whiff of the oil. This is the first insight that professional tasters assess when tasting olive oil. The first fragrant notes are clues to its flavor. Is it heavily fragrant? Can you identify the characteristics? Is it fruity or is it grassy? Is there something more subtle? Good quality olive oil should always have a fruity or green, herbaceous smell such as fresh cut grass.
5. Taste the oil (Bitterness). Draw a long, slurping sip while curling your tongue upward, taking a fair amount of air into your mouth along with that first sip in order to aerate the olive oil. This is called strippagio. Roll the oil across your tongue and all the way to the back of your mouth, allowing tongue to identify as many aspects of the flavor as possible. Remember that bitterness should be present.
6. Swallow the oil (Pungency). By now your tongue and your nose have all the information they need to tell you how the olive oil tastes. Is it fruity? Peppery? Pungent? Bitter? What did you like the most? Note the flavor characteristics and any lingering sensations of pungency in the throat. These distinctions will point you toward your favorites and rule out other oils.
When you know how to taste and identify the flavors of an extra virgin olive oil, you can start to narrow your choices down to the varietals you like, and you’re on your way to finding a favorite.