Wine and olive oil are linked historically, geographically and culturally.
Wine and olive oil are linked historically, geographically and culturally. They share a common Mediterranean origin and to archaeologists are signifiers of a civilised society. Plant a vineyard or olive grove, install a wine or olive press, and you are no longer a hunter-gatherer. You are fixed in place, a centre of attention, and before you know it a civilisation has risen around you. That said, analogies between wine and olive oil can be exaggerated. They are really more like complementary opposites, yin and yang. The marketing and labelling can seem similar and that’s no accident, as the consumers are identical and some companies make both. Olive oil in Australia is where wine once was. Over decades, wine names evolved from generic (Claret, Burgundy) to varietal (Shiraz, Chardonnay) to regional (Barossa, Coonawarra) to bizarre (Lucky Lizard, Devil’s Elbow). Influenced by that trend, olive oil labels are increasingly showing a “vintage” (more accurately the year of harvest), the olive varieties used, a region of origin, a persuasive story and an alluring design. As olive trees followed the vines and spread across Australia, they sunk their gnarled roots in a diversity of districts, from cool and verdant to hot and dry. As a broad generalisation, cool climate oils tend to be elegant and spicy while those from warmer regions are rich and robust, but there are so many exceptions even experts hesitate to pontificate. Is regionality important? Joe Grilli, maker of Joseph Olive Oil, says, “Different regions produce different oil styles, as with wine, though I don’t think it matters much yet to the consumer”. Mark Lloyd from Coriole agrees that it’s early days: “We are more concerned about the absolute best quality for our oil rather than regionality”. A leading, nononsense olive oil judge insisted, “Ripeness of fruit at harvest dominates all”. The type of olive used is as influential as origin. As with grapes, olives come in a range of varieties, styles and sensual names – Picual, Frantoio, Koroneiki, Coratina, Corregiolla – each with its own distinguishing flavour characteristics. Often two or more varieties are blended to improve balance and synergy. What is obvious, and more important, is that quality has never been better. This is evident from the superb examples we are seeing at olive oil shows and the corresponding level of consumer interest and enthusiasm. Buy new season Extra Virgin Olive Oil, preferably local, from a reliable supplier with regular turnover, read the back label and trust your own taste. Look for freshness, restrained pepperiness, complexity and harmony. Use it liberally; olive oil is an ingredient, not a spice. Select the olive oil to suit the dish. A robust olive oil will rev up a rocket salad while a mild oil will really make a mayonnaise. When Jock Zonfrillo of Restaurant Orana judges olive oil, he brings a chef’s eye to the exercise and scores oils down if they are excessively robust and overpower food flavours. I am reminded of wine shows when subtle, savoury Sangiovese is muscled out by palate punishing Shiraz. Do try this at home. Drizzle Extra Virgin Olive Oil over steamed Dutch Cream potatoes, add a light squeeze of lemon juice, parsley, thyme, pink salt and white pepper. The olive oil will enhance the dish superbly but you should still be able to taste the potato. Serve with a crisp dry white wine, perhaps one made by an olive oil producer.