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Olive Oil Tasting Wheel

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Terminology to Describe the Aroma and Taste of Olive Oil

Astute followers of the Australian wine industry would have noticed an increasing number of smaller wine companies dabbling in olive oil production. Some like Mark Lloyd from Coriole in the McLaren Vale and Joe Grilli from the Adelaide Plains (under the Joseph label) are old hands, while others such as Colin Helliar from Stellar Ridge in Margaret River are also making their mark. Why the attraction? Like wine, olive oil is a product of a natural fruit source that varies from season to season depending on the climatic conditions. And like the wine grape vine Vitis vinifera, there are a many different varieties of the olive tree Olea europa each producing oils of different style and character. Varieties like Verdale from Spain that produces soft fruity oil, the bitter, pungent and complex fragrant Frantoio, the spicy Leccino from Tuscany, the aromatic Koroneiki from Greece, and the Gerwurtztraminer's of the oil world, Picual and Hojiblanca from Spain. Together with other varieties such as Manzanilla (Spain), Moraiolo (Italy), Picholine (France), and Coratina (Southern Italy), and Australia's feral trees affectionally known as Colonials (but in reality most genetically resemble the variety "Frantoio"), olive oil making and blending is in some respects not unlike the winemaking art.

But what makes a good oil? It would be tempting to think that all oils labelled Extra Virgin must be of high quality. European Union rules govern the use of the term "Extra Virgin" on labels of oils coming from member nations of the International Olive Oil Council, IOOC. Olive oils labelled Extra Virgin from these countries must meet certain chemical criteria, be fault free and have at least some degree of fruitiness. These are minimal quality requirements and are there to simply guarantee the edibility of these oils. Oils with minor faults are classed as Virgin or Ordinary, and badly faulty, and as such, inedible oils are classed as Lampante (lamp oil grade). Australian oil producers are not bound by any such convention and as such can use the term Extra Virgin as they see fit. However the Australian Olive Association has been pro-active in promoting oil quality by being involved in the development of what is perhaps the most compreshensive and consistent show system in the world. Major shows include the National, South Australian and Royal Sydney (first conducted in 1997), Royal Perth (2001) and Royal Canberra (2002)(to name a few). Most of these shows now attract close to 150 exhibits and as such rate as some of the largest olive oil shows in the world.

So if the label is not a good guide what do you look for in a good oil? Being fault free is a good start. The major faults and what they smell and taste like are given below. Oils that are produced from undamaged olives and processed expediently and correctly should be fault free. Appearance by convention is not considered a quality parameter in oils and should be ignored. High quality oils have an intense array of aromas and flavours. A list of descriptors for olive oils are also given below. The palate complexity of olive oil comes from two unusual (to wine tasters anyway) attributes; bitterness and pungency. Complex oils have a degree of bitterness to match the fruit flavours and produce a throat catching tickle, hotness or pepperyness called pungency. The sensation is not unlike what you get from eating ginger or mild chilli. Both the bitterness and pungency in oils come from a group of compounds called polyphenols, which are the same class of compounds that produce red wine colour, bitterness and astringency. Finally outstanding oils have excellent balance of their components and have good length of flavour. But above all, if an oil is to be considered to be of good quality it must be fresh, that is, displaying lively fresh fruit characters without any hints of rancidity.

By the way, olive oil assessment is conducted by tasting the oils neat, vigorously sucking air through the oil while in the mouth and spitting it out. Water and green apples are used to cleans the palate between oils.

Common Olive Oil Characteristics and Their Descriptors


Fusty Brined olives, lactic acid.
Musty Mouldy, mould spores, musty room.
Winey Vinegar and/or nail polish remover. Exactly the same as volatile acidity (VA) in wine.
Rancid Off walnuts, stale oil. The most common defect.
Muddy Sediment Stale muddy water, fetid, off stale milk, baby vomit.
Metallic Metal on tooth fillings (light sensation of), epsom salts.
Earthy Earth, wet soil.
Burnt Caramel.


Fruity Grassy, spinach, artichoke, green banana, leafy, tomato leaf, bean sprout, green tomato, herbaceous, hay, nutty, almond, pine nut, orange, lemon, floral, spicy, apple, eucalyptus, perfumed, confectionery, buttery. (These are only a sample of all the different characters seen in olive oil)

Bitter grapefruit rind, tonic water.
Pungent pepper heat, chilli heat, throat catching.