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Fine extra virgin olive oils are often tasted and compared in a process not unlike that used to evaluate fine wine. Here are a few tips on how to savor the bold and subtle differences among the olive oils from Spain.
Color
Examine the color. The two most important factors influencing the color of the finished oil are the variety of olive and its maturity at the time of harvest. Early-picked olives yield a dark, greener oil, while riper olives produce an oil that is lighter and more yellow in color.
Aroma
With a few thoughtful sniffs, take in the fragrance: with the best olive oils, you should be able to detect the fresh, fruity aroma of the olive.
Taste
Finally, taste the oil either by dipping a piece of white bread into the glass, or by drawing a teaspoonful of oil quickly into the mouth, mixing it with air to register the sensation of all the nuances of flavor. Between sips, cleanse the palate with a piece of crisp apple, fresh sliced fennel or unflavored sparkling water.
Main Olive Varieties and their Characteristics
Picual
Grown largely in Andalucía. Produces a fruity oil with a pleasant touch of grassy, hay-like bitterness. Ideal for a dish of halibut, haddock or any white-flesh fish.
Arbequina
Grown in Catalonia. Oil is fruity and fresh, with a pleasant piquancy and nutty nuances of almonds. Perfect for vegetable or meat marinades where flavors are more subtle.
Cornicabra
Grown near Toledo. Produces a rustic oil, bringing to mind the flavorful nuances of fresh, ripe fruit
Hojiblanca
Grown in southern Córdoba. Produces a yellow oil with a green and violet tinge. Offers flavors that vary between intense and fruity, and smooth and sweet.
Flavor and fragrance terms experts use to compare olive oils:
Almond
Associated with sweet oils that have a flat scent
Apple
Used when the olive oil tastes of this fruit
Bitter
Similar to the taste of green olives. It can be intense and biting or mellower. Remember, when used in conjunction with olive oil tasting, this is not an undesirable trait.
Brine
Slightly salty taste when oil is extracted from olives preserved in a salt solution
Cucumber
Flavor that oil acquires when packed too long in tin containers
Earthy
This term is used when oil has acquired a musty humid odor because it has been pressed from unwashed, muddy olives
Esparto
Hemp-like flavor acquired when olive paste has been spread on Esparto mats. Flavors may differ according to whether the mats are green or dried.
Flat or Smooth
This term applies to oils that are weak and have lost their characteristic aroma.
Fruity
Reminiscent of the odor of ripe, fresh fruit
Grass
Reminiscent of newly mown grass
Green Leaves (Bitter)
Used to describe oil obtained from extremely green olives or olives crushed with leaves and twigs
Harsh
An astringent taste reaction when tasting certain oils
Hay
Reminiscent of dried grass
Heated or Burnt
Used when oil tastes of excessive heating during thermal processing
Metallic
Characteristic of oil stored or processed under unsuitable conditions with extended contact with metal surfaces
Mustiness-Humidity
Flavor of oils obtained from fruit that have begun to ferment due to prolonged storage
Old
Used to describe oil that has been stored or packed too long
Peppery
Used to describe peppery bite in the back of the throat
Rancid
The flavor of oil or fat that has gone bad; unpleasant
Ripely Fruity
Taste of oil obtained from ripe olives, usually flat and sweet
Rough
Description of a thick, pasty sensation in the mouth
Sweet
Pleasant, but not sugary taste, found in mellow oils
Winey-Vinegary
Flavor of oils with a high acid content

Tasting Advice
Cut a loaf of white bread (or any bread with mellow taste) into small pieces, cubes of
1/2 - 1" thick.
Pour the olive oil in a small cup or plate.
Having some water available is always good, but the best way to change from one oil to another without mixing flavors is with a small bite of green apple.

 
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