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The rise of Australian olive oil

Posted on : 07 September 2016

WORDS: Alexandra Malfroy

Article first appeared RAS Times November 2012

­­Italy, Spain and Greece have for centuries been regarded as the world's top olive oil producers. The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean basin, so it's no surprise that they have dominated the market for so long. Australian olive oil producers, however, have been enjoying the effects of a burgeoning local industry, and are now being noticed for their quality olive oil production. 

Someone who has witnessed this industry growth and tasted first-hand the increasing quality of Australian olive oil is Sydney Royal Fine Food Judge and Chair of Judges for the Olive Oil Competition, Peter Olson.

Peter has been associated with the industry since the mid-1980s and was part of the team responsible for forming Australia's inaugural olive oil testing panel, the Australian Olive Oil Sensory Panel, in 2005.

"I was involved with chemical testing and analysis of oils with the NSW Department of Agriculture, when olive oil came into the picture. We realised that part of the International Olive Council standard required not only chemical testing, but taste testing to ensure extra virgin quality, which is the superior grade of oil," says Peter.

The panel has maintained International Olive Council recognition since formation and assisted Australian olive oil being recognised on the world stage. Peter has been retired from his role as head of the Sensory Panel since 2009, and now travels to shows around the country to judge olive oil. He has seen huge growth in the industry over recent years.

"Around the time the Sensory Panel was formed, the olive oil industry was recognised as an emerging industry by the Federal Agricultural Department," says Peter. "By around 2008, it was recognised as a major industry.  So in around four years, it grew substantially."

Several factors contributed to the increased interest and production levels of Australian olive oil, particularly gaining momentum from the mid-90s. Consumers became more interested in Mediterranean cuisine and began incorporating more olive oil into their diets; producers saw the opportunity to fill the gap in the huge import market of olive products; and the advancement of harvesting equipment reduced production costs for producers, which previously had been a major challenge for producers to remain viable.

Australia's similar climatic conditions to the Mediterranean, coupled with Australian producers perfecting their planting and production over recent years, has resulted in the production of superior extra virgin oil.

"It's been an evolving process over the years to determine the best places for us to grow olives," explains Peter. "Obviously, different areas have different micro-climates, and olive tree varieties are grown better in certain conditions. There were some horrendous droughts as well that forced many owners to sell."

Benchmarking quality olive oil

Coinciding with the growth and development within the olive oil industry, the Sydney Royal Fine Food Show launched the Olive Oil Competition in 1998 to reward producers and enable quality benchmarking within the industry.

Classes judged include several extra virgin olive oil classes as well as classes for olives and associated products. All oil judged must be Australian extra virgin olive oil.

Entry figures and medals have fluctuated over the years, mainly due to the industry being faced with tough environmental conditions affecting their harvest. The 2012 competition was no exception.

"What I have heard from different producers is that there was rain at the wrong time after flowering, which didn't allow for pollination to take place and obtain the yields they had hoped for," says Peter. "I'd say it was simply the agricultural conditions - they either work in your favour or they don’t…that’s just agriculture!"

The conditions, which don't necessarily impact on the olive oil quality, did result in olive oil production being low in many states; entry levels in the competition were also lower than previous years. Despite there being a mixed standard of entries in 2012, there were some superior products that shone above the rest. 

"We awarded three excellent products with gold medals during the 2012 competition," says Peter. "There were many silvers awarded but they didn’t quite get to the level of excellence that we are looking for as judges. But to get a silver medal in Sydney Royal is still a great achievement, all medallists should be congratulated."

Extra virgin is best

"A good olive oil has to be extra virgin", says Peter. "To be extra virgin it has to go through the hoops - the chemical analysis as well as the sensory analysis."

Extra virgin olive oil is the highest grade of oil, and also the healthiest. It is produced naturally from the best olives off the tree, without chemicals and heat. As natural oil, it should have no more than 0.8 per cent acidity.

Peter, who has been judging oil for seven years, says fresh extra virgin olive oil, if prepared correctly, should have a good fruity aroma. "By fruitiness this can mean grassy, herbaceous or aromas like pomme fruits, such as apples and pears, right through to tropical fruits like pineapples," he says. "Olive oil can develop many different aromas. It depends on the variety and ripeness of the olive as to the kind of complexity and intensity of the fruity aromas you can get."

He also points out that other attributes come into play when judging olive oil, such as bitterness and pungency. "People often wonder about that, but a balance of bitterness and pungency within the oil provides complexity and a promise of stability," he says. "The shelf life of the oil also wouldn't be very long without having these antioxidants – the polyphenolics in olives - which give the bitterness and pungency."

Unlike many other food judging competitions, judges of olive oil don't consider colour or appearance as much as aroma and flavour when judging oil.

Western Australia produces Champion oil

Chapman River Olives from Geraldton took out two awards for their Murphy Yetna Queen of Spain Cora Oil at the 2012 Sydney Royal Oil Olive Competition. They won Champion Commercial Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Champion Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil of Show, the top award of the Show.

Farm manager Russell Lewis began planting olive trees on the family farm, located by the Chapman River in WA, in 1999. The business has gone from strength to strength, winning medals for their oil since production began in 2005.

The olive groves, grown in rich red valley soil, produced the Queen of Spain oil varieties which took out the prestigious medals in the competition. Judges commended the oil for its tropical fruit flavours of guava, passionfruit and honey dew.

"We believe that 'good soil makes good oil'. Our soil type and quality water, plus plenty of sun and organic fertilizer produces premium oil," says Russell.

Russell says winning a Sydney Royal medal is a great marketing tool for their business. "Winning awards is one way of marketing ourselves better. We're aiming to market smarter with smaller packaging due to the tight margin with prices and production costs. Having a medal on your product definitely helps."

Illegitimate labelling of some extra virgin products on the shelves, as well as consumer perception, are obstacles Russell says the Australian industry still needs to overcome.

"European imports have had a dream run here for 200 years. Many consumers still believe that Italian olive oil is superior to Australian product," he says. "There's also dishonest labelling of many extra virgin products on shelves, mostly imports. Luckily we have some very dedicated people in the industry who have been leading the push for honest label legislation for some time now."

While the industry still faces these challenges, as well as high production costs, Russell hopes he can continue growing his business. "It [the olive oil industry] got going seriously back in the 1960s but fizzled due to production costs, mostly due to a lack of mechanical harvesting ability back then," says Russell. "I am quite passionate about the survival of our industry this time."

Australian olive oil

The future of the industry looks bright. Australians are increasingly choosing Australian olive oil at the supermarkets over European imports, and exports to international markets are on the rise.

"Australians have gone from very little use of olive oil to being much more aware of it," Peter Olson says. "When I was leader of the Sensory Panel, I noticed that only about 10 per cent of olive oil on supermarket shelves was Australian. But it's now around 50 per cent, which is a great sign."

The Australian Olive Association (AOA) has played a major role in changing consumer perception through campaigns. In 2009, renowned chef Matt Moran spearheaded a large campaign for the AOA to promote that 'fresher tastes better' when it comes to extra virgin olive oil. According to the AOA, 95 per cent of olive oil produced in Australia is extra virgin olive oil.

One of the challenges the industry still faces, however, is illegitimate labelling. Peter hopes progress will continually be made in this area.

"Many imported oils on supermarket shelves were labelled extra virgin, when in fact, they were not. We've certainly raised awareness with supermarkets about this and influenced them to not buy and sell so many oils that aren't extra virgin olive oil," explains Peter. "We don't mind imported oils, as long as they're extra virgin."

A positive development in the industry did occur in 2011 when Standards Australia approved a new olive oil standard to bolster consumer protection and tackle mislabelling and misrepresentation. The standard, "unambiguously defines what constitutes Extra Virgin Olive Oil", among other stringent rules.

"There is now a legislative 'strong arm' to ensure the standard for the country is reached and to help supermarkets realise that's what they should do," says Peter.

With consumer perception towards Australian olive oil improving, with more consumers opting for Australian extra virgin oil at the supermarket, the export market for Australian olive oil is also on the rise.

"There is a huge growth in Asian countries for the taste of olive oil; they're changing their diets to include it. So there continues to be growth. Sure there will be ups and downs in agricultural conditions, but the demand is there," says Peter. "The industry is always moving forward."