“Once you’ve picked up stone fruit and tropical notes in a fine Ascolano, you’ll be hooked,” says Todd Knoll of Sonoma’s Jordan Winery.
An exotic new wine? Actually, it’s olive oil. Ascolano is one of more than 75 olive varieties planted in California since the late 18th century. Jordan’s 2015 vintage, a blend of Frantoio, Leccino and Arbequina olives, shows notes of grapefruit, white flowers and buttery nuts in addition to the classic olive oil hallmarks of artichoke and cut grass.
According to the California Olive Oil Council, there are almost 40,000 acres in the state devoted to olive oil and more than 400 producers. Many of these producers are also winemakers that find the Mediterranean-type climate ideal for olives, and the oils have placed among the best in international competitions.
“Olive groves are traditionally planted in plots deemed poor for grape production, so it works perfectly in tandem with viticulture,” says Knoll. He says that the trees’ ability to withstand stress, heat and drought make them a smart hedge for winemakers concerned about climate change.
“Some of our best years of production have been in the current drought,” he says.
Though olives are grown and pressed much like grapes, freshness and fruit are paramount.
“Unlike wine, olive oil is never better than when first milled,” says Knoll, who mills within 24 hours of harvest. “Aging oil brings no added complexity. In fact, it only results in a loss of phenolic compounds, and health and culinary benefits.”
When possible, Knoll advises purchasing olive oil directly from the producer, as proper handling and storage are critical. When buying in stores, read the labels and “pay close attention to harvest dates,” he says. “You’ll be surprised at how often a once-great oil has been allowed to fade into mediocrity, or even rancidity.”
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How To Taste Olive Oil
With olive oil, visual cues give no indication of quality or character. Professional tasters sip it from a tapered cobalt-blue glass (available at oleolive.com) so that they won’t be swayed by its appearance. A small wine glass is a fine substitute. As with wine, swirl to release aromas, and take in a bit of air as you sip to help coat your mouth. No spitting. Swallowing is essential to gauge pungency. That’s felt by a burning sensation in the back of the throat, and it’s a sign of quality, indicating high levels of healthful phenolic compounds. Cleanse your palate between tastings with a bite of green apple and a sip of water.
Though Italians deep-fry in olive oil, we’re erroneously warned that it has a low smoke point unsuitable for frying. High-quality olive oil has one of the highest smoke points among cooking oils. That’s due to its low free fatty acidity (FFA) and high oleocanthal, one of the desirable phenolic compounds, which limits its degradation over high heat. Most smoke-point charts now account for this.