Olive Cultivars

olive cultivars and olive oil bitterness

When choosing a particular type or brand of extra virgin olive oil, the country of origin is of high importance due to the fact that every country uses different olive fruit varieties that give a different taste to the final product. Olive cultivars influence the quality of olive oil and olive oil bitterness. If all the other factors (maturity of the olive fruit, harvesting, processing etc.) are respected in the best possible way, the final products will be still different due to their olive cultivar.

From the other side, bitterness is considered to be one of the positive attributes of EVOO. What is the connection between olive cultivars and flavor and taste, especially between olive cultivars and olive oil bitterness, we are going to find out here. Since more than 70% of the world production comes from Spain, Italy and Greece, the olive cultivars of these three major producers will be compared.

 In Spain, more than half of the produced olive oil comes from Picual variety, other important cultivars being Hojiblanca, Cornicabra, Lechin, Picudo, Empeltre and Arbequina.

In Italy the most cultivated olive varieties are Frantoio, Lecino, Pendolino, Coratino and Moraiolo and in Greece most of the olive oil production is from Koroneiki variety.

 We will describe the most important of these olive cultivars and then summarize the information in tables.

 Spain

Picual is the most important variety (50-80% of the oil production in Spain). It is concentrated in Jaen Andalusia and neighboring provinces. The olive is medium to large in size, with an average of 3.2 grams. The oil yield is high, reaching about 27%. The oils from Picual are high in polyphenols and have good stability. Maturation is between the beginning of November and mid-December but the fruit should be processed as soon as possible. It produces nice aromatic fruity oil with medium bitterness when early harvested but when harvested late in the season the oil has lower quality. The fruits are susceptible to olive fly (Dacus oleae) and slightly sensitive to leaf spot (Cycloconium oleaginum). This oil is best used in frying.

 Hojiblanca is produced in the eastern part of Seville, the south of Córdoba, and the north of Málaga. The olive is large, up to 4.8 grams and the oil yield is between 18-26%. Maturation takes place from the end of November to the end of December. The oil has medium content of Polyphenols, it is fruity, aromatic, mildly pungent. It is slightly bitter and has medium stability. These olives are also widely used and appreciated as black table olives.

 Cornicabra is also called Cornezuelo, Corniche or Osual. Has a medium size, on average 3 grams and oil yield between 23-27%. Has a very high content of polyphenols and the oil is highly appreciated.

 Arbequina makes a high appreciated oil but must be consumed early in the harvest since it has very low content of polyphenols and goes rancid within 18 months.

Empeltre has a pale yellow color and no bitter taste, unstable, tendency for oxidation.

Picudo has only 65% monounsaturated fat and its medium content of polyphenols gives it a tendency for oxidation.

 Italy

In Italy’s case, many times the final product is a blend of different olive oils coming from different olive cultivars. In Tuscany and Umbria blends of Frantoio, Leccino and Pendolino or Frantoio and Leccino or these blends with Moraiolo added are famous. In Puglia Coratina is preferred.

Frantoio is the most predominant oil cultivar in Italy, especially in Tuscany and Umbria. It has a small to medium size fruit of 2-2.5 grams. The oil yield is between 23-26% and maturation is medium to late from middle of October until late December. The oil has medium to high polyphenol content, has very good aromatic qualities and is strongly pungent. The tree is sensitive to peacock eye leaf and the fruit to olive fly infection. The oil is considered to have a very high quality.

Leccino is another very important oil cultivar in Italy. The fruit has small to medium size (2-2.5grams) with oil yield of 22-27%. Maturation comes earlier than Frantoio. Leccino is an important part of the blend because it matures earlier and is much lighter in flavor with its own spicy character. It is used to soften and add complexity to ‘Frantoio’ and the Tuscan blend. Has medium content of polyphenols and medium stability. Does not have strong flavor and is slight bitter and of low pungency.  It is very resistant to cold weather. It is appreciated by the Italians to have a fair to good quality oil. It is disease resistant (some sources explain this by the high cold altitudes where it grows). 

 Pendolino is generally used for pollination and its oil is mostly used for blending.

Moraiolo has small size fruit, oil yield between 18 to 28% and very high polyphenol content which gives it a good stability. The oil is very strongly fruity and herbaceous and has a good reputation.

Coratina. The main production area in Italy is Puglia (some years up to 40% of the oil production). Has a medium size fruit, oil yield 23-27%, a very high polyphenol content and very high oil appreciation. It has a strong flavor of green herbs, it is bitter, pungent and stable.

 Greece

In Greece two thirds of the planted trees are Koroneiki variety and their olives are used only for oil production (they are too small to be consumed as table olives). On the island of Crete or Peloponesus, the main production areas, oil from Koroneiki variety is up to 85%. It is also widely used on the islands of Zakynthos and Messenia. Other olive cultivars used for oil production in Greece also have very small size and similar qualities to koroneiki.

Fruit ripens early and is very small averaging only 1 gram (sometimes less than 1 gram). The oil yield is high between 20-27%.  The chemical characteristics of Koroneiki oil are excellent. 

This variety has a very high polyphenols contents and is very stable, giving it an excellent shelf life. It has a very strong flavor of freshness, green herbs and apples. When collected early in the season, excellent quality premium oil is obtained. Because of the small fruit size, mechanical harvesting could be difficult.

This cultivar is resistant to water stress and wind, but sensitive to olive fly. Its tolerance to cold is low.

Lianolia is another important oil producing variety, yielding excellent quality oil. It is a late-ripening variety with an oil yield of around 20%. Some sources say this variety is from the same family with Koroneiki.
Asprolia has a yield of around 20%, and produces oil that is fruity and pungent in flavor.
Thiaki produces excellent quality oil with a fruity flavor. It is early ripening and has a yield of 20%.

Summarized Data

country cultivar fruit size oil yield polyphenols* stability**
Spain Picual medium 20-27% very high*** good
Hojiblanca large 18-26% medium medium
Cornicabra medium 23-27% very high medium
Italy Frantoio small-medium 23-26% medium-high medium
Leccino small-medium 22-27% medium medium
Moraiolo small 18-28% very high good
Coratina medium 23-27% very high good
Greece Koroneiki very small 20-27% very high very stable

*The higher content of polyphenols, the higher the quality of the oil and better stability (polyphenols have antioxidant activity).

**the stability of the product or its shelf life depends not only on the polyphenols content but also on the fatty acids proportions, tocopherols, phytosterols, squalene and volatile compounds.

***The oil made of Picual olives is of high quality when harvested early and proper agronomic practices are followed.

Olive cultivars and organoleptic and sensory qualities of the oil

cultivar polyphenols fruitiness bitterness pungency appreciation
Picual very high fruity medium medium low-high
Hojiblanca medium medium low mild medium
Cornicabra very high very fruity medium medium high
Frantoio medium-high very fruity medium strong very high
Leccino medium medium low low medium
Moraiolo very high strong medium medium medium
Coratina very high strong bitter pungent very high
Koroneiki very high strong mild mild very high

Related article: Why is olive oil bitter?

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