Spanish olive oil

Olive oil is one of the core elements of Mediterranean food culture and Spain is no exception. As a matter of fact, Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world, and also has the second highest consumption per capita – outranked only by Greece.

Buying Spanish olive oil in the United States

In the United States, Spanish olive oil is among the best known, and top-quality extra-virgin olive oil from Spain tend to fetch a very high price and come in elaborate packaging. Fortunately for those of use who need to stick to a more modest olive oil budget, Spain also produces a wide range of upper mid-tier extra-virgin olive oils of a quality high enough to satisfy anyone but the most hardcore olive oil aficionados. These oils can be bought in well-assorted supermarkets and in speciality shops focused on either Spanish or Mediterranean delicacies. Also keep in mind that some Spanish restaurants in the U.S. import interesting olive oils directly from Spain and might be able to sell you a bottle or two if you take a liking to the taste of the oil used in their dishes.

Spain – the king of olive oil production

If we take a look at the desirable virgin olive oil, Spain produced over 1,7 million tonnes of it in 2014, with producer #2 – Italy – producing less than 300,000 tonnes in the same year. Spain’s production of virgin olive oil becomes even more impressive in the light of how the world-wide production for that year reached just slightly above 3 million tonnes.

Virgin olive oil production 2014

Country Production (tonnes)
Spain 1,738,600
 Italy 294,914
 Greece 208,900
 Tunisia 179,700
 Morocco 137,400
World 3,050,390

Source: FAOSTAT of the United Nations

The price of olive oil was high between 2004 and 2008 (Graph). The price peaked at almost USD 6000/metric ton. The prices then plummeted after the financial crisis and in April 2009 the price had dropped below USD3000.  In 2012 the price had dropped even further and the olive oil futures traded for USD 2670.  Since then the price of the futures have started to rise again and it is now close to the 2004 level.  It is therefore possible that we will see a period of expensive olive oil again.  Something that the spanish farmers are bound to welcome since they were hurt badly by the low prices a few years ago that made it hard to stay in business.

Andalucía is the heart of Spain’s olive oil production

Roughly three fourths of Spain’s annual production of olive oil takes place in Andalucía on the southernmost part of the Iberian peninsula, the only European region with both Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines.

Within Andalucía, the epicentre for olive oil production is the Jaén province, from which an astonishing 70% of all Spanish olive oil comes from. The Jaén town of Villacarrillo is home to the world’s largest almazara (olive oil mill), a mill capable of processing 2,500 tons of olives per day.

With such a high production, it isn’t surprising at all to find that the gap between Andalucía’s best olive oils and worst olive oils is a big one. As a buyer, it is always important to make an informed decision when selecting olive oil to avoid the pitfalls.

Denominación de Origen

Within Spain, olive oil from certain areas have achieved Denominación de Origen certification. This is an official mark showing that the oil comes from a designated area and is created in accordance with certain criteria, e.g. when it comes to olives used and the style of processing.

If you are interested in knowing more, looking up the Denominación de Origen certification criteria for the following Spanish olive oils is a good start:

Name Info
Aceite Monterrubio From Badajoz in Extremadura Mostly Cornezuelo and Picual varieties
Baena From the south-east of the province of Cordoba

Hojiblanca, Picual and Lechín varieties

Les Garrigues From the province of Lleida in Catalonia

Arbequina and Verdiell varieties

Priego de Córdoba From the province of Córdoba

Picado, Hojiblanca and Picual varieties

Sierra Magina From the southern part of Jaén province

The Picual variety

Sierra Segura From the north-east of Jaén province

Mostly the Picual variety

Siurana From the province of Tarragona

Arbequina, Royal and Murrot varieties

Extra Virgin olive oil vs. other types of olive oil

Compared to other classes of olive oil, Extra Virgin olive oils have undergone minimal processing and this typically means better flavour and aroma.

In many parts of the world, only olive oils that fulfil certain requirements set by the International Olive Council (IOC) are allowed to be marketed as Extra Virgin, but since the United States isn’t a member of the IOC, the IOC retail grades have no legal significance within the U.S. In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched their own Standards for Grades of Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil. Here is an overview:

Labelling Info
U.S. Extra Virgin Olive Oil Oil with excellent flavor and odor.

A free fatty acid content of not more than 0.8 grams per 100 grams.

U.S. Virgin Olive Oil Oil with reasonably good flavor and odor.

A free fatty acid content of not more than 2 grams per 100 grams.

U.S. Olive Oil A mixture of virgin and refined oils
U.S. Refined Olive Oil Oil made from refined oils with some restrictions on the processing.
U.S. Virgin Olive Oil Not Fit For Human Consumption Without Further Processing A virgin (mechanically-extracted) olive oil of poor flavor and odor, equivalent to the IOC’s lampante oil.

These grades are voluntary. Certification is available, for a fee, from the USDA.