Os Tres Gatos

Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil

What makes a great olive oil? Balance. Olive oil has three major taste/aromatic qualities: fruity (green fruity and ripe fruity), bitter, and peppery. And the best oils have a balance of these three. A light olive oil with only hints of these three qualities and a robust oil that explodes with aroma, has a sharp bitter taste, and a pepperiness that makes you cough are both great olive oils if the balance is correct.

Below is an edited version of an article from the Olive Oil Times (yes, that's a thing) about tasting olive oil. At the bottom of the page is an olive oil tasting circle to give you some idea of the kinds of flavours you may encounter in olive oil.

Cup the glass in one hand and cover it with the other to trap the aromas inside while you warm it up. Hold it, swirl it, warm it for a minute or two. Then stick your nose into the glass and take a good whiff of the aromas or "nose" of the olive oil.

You may notice the smell of fresh-cut grass, cinnamon, tropical fruits or other aromas of ripe or green olive fruit. This is a good time to point out that the word "fruity" in olive oil can refer to vegetable notes, such as green olive fruit, as well as to ripe fruit notes. So think of artichokes, grass, and herbs as "fruit" when you taste olive oils.

Now take a sip of the oil. Don't be too wimpy about it; if you don't get a decent amount you won't appreciate all the qualities of the oil because it is only getting on the tip of your tongue. You ideally want to get the impressions of the entire mouth and tongue.

Suck air through the oil to coax more aromas out of it, and then—this is important—close your mouth and breathe out through your nose. This "retronasal" perception will give you a whole bunch of other flavour notes. Retronasal perception is possible because your mouth connects to your nose in the back. Now swallow some or all of the oil.

Pungency is a peppery sensation, detected in the throat, so swallowing some oil is important. Pungency is a positive characteristic of olive oil. It is a chemical irritation, like the hotness of chilies, and equally appealing once you get used to it.

Once you start to get into that spicy kick, it is hard to imagine life without it. Pungency can be very mild—just the tiniest single—or it can be intense enough to make you cough. Olive oil aficionados will sometimes refer to a one, two, or look out, a three-cough oil.

The third of the three positive attributes of olive oil, in addition to fruity and pungent, is bitter. Bitterness, like pungency, is also an acquired taste. As anyone who has ever tasted an olive right off the tree can attest, bitter is a prominent taste in fresh olives.

Curing olives for the table, in fact, has to start with a de-bittering process. Since olive oil is made from uncured olives, varying degrees of bitterness can be found; oil made from riper fruit will have little to no bitterness, oil made from greener fruit can be distinctly bitter.

The fruity characteristics you may notice in the mouth include nutty, buttery and other ripe flavours and a fuller spectrum of green fruity notes. Another characteristic that is most pronounced in this retronasal perception is rancidity. The traditional palate cleanser between olive oils is water, plain or sparkling, and slices of Granny Smith apple.

Once you have tasted an olive oil plain, the next step is to taste it in combination with food. This is where olive oil comes to life, as one of the flavours in a dish.

Wine presents a good analogy: a wine that is great with food might not be appropriate as an aperitif. Olive oil is the same: sometimes an olive oil that seems over-the-top pungent and bitter by itself or with bread, is perfection itself when used to top a hearty bean soup.

Paring olive oils and foods is an entire discussion of its own, but for a great learning experience, try three different olive oils—one delicate, one medium, one robust—with a variety of items. Good choices are warm boiled potatoes, fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, bread, warm cooked white beans, salad greens, seasonal cooked vegetables, grilled steak, poached or grilled chicken; pretty much whatever is for dinner. Cook things simply, without a lot of added seasonings, but be sure you have some sea salt on hand.

Now taste pieces of the same food dipped in each of the oils. Notice how the flavours interact. Is it a harmonious mix? A contrast? Does one flavour overwhelm the other, or do they balance well?

This is a fun thing to do with a group of friends: you can taste together and compare impressions. Add a couple of wines—a red and a white—to complete the pairings, and you have yourself a dinner party.

—Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne
Below are three versions of an olive oil tasting wheel.

Swiss-Disk olive oil taste wheelolive oil tasting wheelolive oil tasting wheel