South American Olive Oil
A few years ago an oil from Chile won the best of show in the international intense category at the Los Angeles County Fair. The oil, with a hint of tomato leaf in the taste and a good balance of fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency, was produced from 100 percent Picual olives by Olivares de Quepu, S. A. It was fresh with green-olive characteristics, very different from most of the Picual olive oils made in Spain. Clearly this Chilean producer was doing something different.
A recent trip to Argentina and Chile let me mix vacation with olive oil research. I decided to contact companies whose oil had won a gold medal at the most recent Los Angeles International Competition that were close to the places we planned to visit. Two producers set up visits for me, my husband, and our two friends traveling with us.
Familia Zuccardi, in Mendoza, Argentina, is known more for its wine than its olive oil. After touring the winery, tasting the entire repertoire of wines and the three varietal olive oils—Frantoio, Manzanillo, and Arauco— we had a meat-inspired lunch from the wood grill in the winery’s restaurant. Then Ernesto Ferioli, who works with the miller, Miguel Zuccardi, told me about the olive oil side of the business, which is still in its infancy. He was particularly proud of the Arauco, an olive many consider to be native to Argentina. To my taste it was a fairly robust oil, with green olive fruit and noticeable bitterness and pungency.
Now the olives are milled about thirty miles to the east, but the company plans to buy an Italian mill. They are experimenting with different varieties, although Ernesto clearly liked the Arauco, which he called the new Malbec.
The Diaz-Guerrero family have owned land near the foothills of the Andes mountains in the Colchagua valley of central Chile for sixty years. Originally, cattle grazed on the land, but inspired by a few gnarled olive trees on the property, they decided to grow olives instead. Carlos Eduardo, with a background in engineering and agronomy, learned about olives in Chile, Spain, and Italy. He and Miguel Zuccardi were members of a group that went to study olive oil production in Italy a few years ago.
Carlos had invited all four of us on an extensive tour of the orchards and mill and, in a show of great generosity toward strangers, to join the family for lunch. We followed his e-mailed directions through small villages and over unpaved roads, hoping we were going the right way, and were relieved to see the Diaz-Guerrero logo on Carlos’ baseball hat as he stood at the unmarked gate of the orchards. We left our rented car outside the building that housed the irrigation works and Carlos proudly showed us his three-year-old Italian mill. Then we climbed into ranch trucks for a bumpy ride through the orchards. They grow four varieties, Arbequina, Leccino, Picual, and Frantoio, that they harvest and mill separately. At the far end of the orchard they are propagating trees, including 50,000 seedlings in varying stages of maturity the day we visited.
After the tour we walked across the road for lunch, where other family members were waiting. Carlos had set up a table for me to taste the oils, using his official blue glasses that he got on the Italian trip. I tasted the oils, each a separate varietal, then a blend of the four. Each showed their varietal characteristics and all were well-balanced, delicious oils. After my olive oil aperitif, I joined the group for pisco sours, abundant appetizers, and lunch of grilled meat and salad washed down with some of Chile’s best red wine. I left with souvenir bottles of oil to take home that went into the cool closet off the kitchen in our San Francisco flat.
Although some South American extra-virgin olive oil makes its way to the U.S. market, I think the exports will grow in the future. Be on the lookout.
More news about South American Olive Oil: Diaz-Guerrero’s olive oil made from Leccino olives won a gold medal at the 2009 Los Angeles International Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Competition.