Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil: the complete guide to EVOO

Categories : Olive Oil

This article is a guide to Italian extra virgin olive oil (the acronym is EVOO), which is the best Italian olive oil. Find out more about its characteristics, production and olive harvesting methods. Enjoy exploring the world of EVOO!

Italian extra virgin olive oil in a transparent tasting glass. Around it, on a table, are olives and slices of bread.


What does extra virgin olive oil mean?

Extra virgin olive oil is a very high quality Italian olive oil. It has no defects whatsoever and is produced exclusively by a mechanical process in which the olives are cold-pressed.

When we refer to extra virgin olive oil, we mean olive oil from Italy, as in this shop you only buy Italian olive oil and other Italian food specialities, such as balsamic vinegar of Modena, pasta sauces, olives and wine.

In Italian the term "extra vergine" is often written as a single word: "extravergine". According to the current European classification into quality grades, "extra virgin" is the highest quality of olive oil. 

Extra virgin olive oil is also known as EVOO, which is its acronym. One of the essential characteristics of EVOO oil is that the olives must be cold-pressed.

What does "cold pressing" mean?

"Cold pressing" means that the temperature of the olive pulp, i.e. the mass of crushed olives, never exceeds 27°C during the pressing process.

The mechanical method of cold pressing ensures that the minerals, vitamins and antioxidants contained in the olives (substances that protect the body from free radicals) are preserved as far as possible in the olive oil produced.

There is a key difference between cold-pressed and hot-pressed olive oil:

  • Cold pressing produces the highest quality of olive oil, but a lower (quantitative) yield for the producer
  • Hot pressing produces a higher (quantitative) yield for the producer, but a lower quality of oil.

If the olives are cold-pressed, then a far greater quantity of olives is required to produce a bottle of oil.


What makes olive oil "extra virgin"?

EVOO must have well-defined chemical characteristics, most notably low acidity, which must not exceed 0.8%.

In addition, this grade requires other objectively detectable properties that affect either the taste or the aroma of the oil.

Therefore, an extra virgin olive oil must have a: 

  • fruity
  • bitter
  • sharp

taste and smell.

The scale of points awarded for each of the criteria ranges from 1 to 10, with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest. 

For example, an Italian extra virgin olive oil could achieve the following rating: fruity 8, bitter 2, spicy 1 point(s).

☝️ EVOO must have a fruity taste of olives when tasting greater than 0

What is oleic acid content?

The acidity of an olive oil is determined by its oleic acid content. This in turn depends on the presence of free fatty acids. The level of free fatty acids in olive oil is indeed so low that it cannot be noticed by our taste buds.

☝️The level of acidity in an EVO oil has no effect on its taste and is not detectable during tasting. The acidity is a chemical property of olive oil that can only be detected by laboratory analysis.
☝️One of the requirements for grading an Italian oil as "extravergine" is that its acidity must be less than 0.8% .

The quality of EVOO

Let's see what are the essential aspects and characteristics that determine the quality of Italian EVO.

These can be summarised in four points:

  1. The Approval by professional testers
  2. The evaluation given in international tests and competitions
  3. The mechanical extraction process and the lack of chemical additives
  4. The complete traceability of the olives

Approval by professional testers

To obtain the "extra virgin" label, Italian olive oil must pass a flavour test by a panel of experts. 

Their opinion will decide whether the oil meets the conditions for classification as extra virgin olive oil. 

For their part, the olive oil testers must be qualified and officially registered. Every Italian region has its own register of certified olive oil experts.

In addition, "extra virgin" olive oil must not have any defects.

The cause of defects in olive oil may be:

  1. The olives themselves, i.e.  their condition at the time of harvesting (sound, mouldy or worm-eaten taste) or during processing (flavour spoiled by heating)
  2. Due to chopping in the oil mill (metallic notes) 
  3. Due to storage (earthy hue, rancidity).

Some of the most common olive oil defects can be traced back to crop failure and/or processing. The following defects result in easily recognisable false notes in the taste:

Rancid, musty or unpleasant earthy taste (caused by mould or by solids, known as oil sludge, due to a lack of filtration)

Vinegary taste (caused by the acetic acid produced in rotting fermenting olives)

Metallic Flavors (caused by contact with metal parts in poorly cleaned oil mills or metal containers)

Incorrect heat due to overheating during processing or wormy taste (due to infestation of olives still hanging on the tree by the olive fruit fly laying its eggs in burst fruit)

☝️Olives that have been stored too long after harvest start to ferment. For this reason, freshly harvested olives must be taken to the mill for processing within a few hours.
☝️If "extra virgin" olive oil is filled in tin canisters (usually 3- or 5-litre containers), these should be of very good quality. Otherwise, there is a risk that the oil will take on a metallic taste.

Examinations and competitions around olive oil

There are a number of trade fairs, journals and competitions both in Italy and internationally, in which olive oils are tested by examiners and professional sommeliers. 

Here are some of the most important international competitions where the quality of EVOO  is assessed:

  • Slow Food
  • Gambero Rosso
  • Biol
  • Der Feinschmecker
  • International Olive Oil Award Zurich (IOOA)
  • New York International Olive Oil Competition
  • Flos Olei
  • Ercole Olivario
  • Sol d'Oro
  • Gourmesse

☝️Unlike olive oil inspectors, olive oil sommeliers are not members of a trade register.

"Extra virgin" olive oil: unadulterated, with no additives

Olive oil is only considered genuine if it was extracted exclusively by mechanical processes and contains no additives. Authenticity is one of the criteria that EVO oil is required to meet.

Complete traceability

"Traceability" means being able to monitor the entire process of creating an olive oil - from the olives via their processing to the finished oil in the bottle. 

Maximum traceability is ensured when implemented through a single control procedure covering the olives themselves, the location of the harvest and the individual processing steps, including bottling and packaging. As soon as there are gaps in traceability - for example, growers buying their olives abroad - it is difficult to guarantee the integrity of the olive oil concerned.

☝️ Extra virgin olive oils may be made from oils and olives originating in EU countries as well as non-EU countries. The exact origin of the oils used must be clearly identifiable by a reference on the label. However, there are hardly any controls on the origin of the raw materials. 

The words "extra virgin olive oil" on a label do not therefore provide sufficient information about traceability or origin, or the quality of olives used.

☝️ Thanks to the “Extra Virgin Olive Oil ID card” project launched by the CNR research institute in Pisa, a guarantee of origin for extra virgin olive oil, consumers can accurately identify the place of production of the extra virgin olive oil by means of alphanumeric coding on the bottle label and a digital database. 
☝️ The strongest possible traceability and therefore certainty about their origin are offered by extra virgin olive oils with protected designation of origin (PDO, in Italian DOP), since this always provides proof of the area where the olives have been grown.

Shop Online Extra Virgin Olive Oils of Protected Designation of Origin (DOP)

Olive oil from Italy is produced in 20 regions

There are over 500 varieties of olives in Italy. Olive oil is produced in all 20 Italian regions. 

In fact, Italy is also the world leader when it comes to the number of olive varieties. The vast majority of varieties of olive (called "cultivar" in Italian) are grown in very limited areas. There are only a few varieties grown on land spanning more than one region. The oils obtained from the various olive varieties differ in:

  • intensity 
  • flavour

Olive oils with flavours of varying intensity are produced in all the regions of Italy. Therefore you need to know not only the region from which a particular oil comes, but also which variety of olive was used.

Sicilian olive oil has a different taste and organoleptic characteristics from extra virgin olive oil from Puglia

Similarly, Tuscan oil also tastes different from olive oil from Lake Garda.

Monocultivar Olive Oil

“Extra virgin” olive oil can be obtained from a single variety of olive - in this case it is referred to as single-grade olive oil or monocultivar olive oil. If several varieties are used it is referred to as a blend. This is a similar concept to the making of whisky, where you will find Single Malts and Blends.

☝️ In our shop you will find an entire section of single-variety "extra virgin" olive oils

The olive harvest in Italy

The olive harvest typically takes place between the beginning of October and the end of December. 

The right time to harvest depends on a number of factors. Firstly, whether the olive is an early- or late-maturing variety, and secondly the desired quality of the oil

However, the most important factor is the weather conditions. The harvesting period and method also have an effect on the quality of the pressing and the production quantity.

The best time to start the olive harvest is generally the moment when the 50-60% colour change occurs, when the concentration of polyphenols in the olives reaches its peak. These substances contribute significantly to the taste and nutritional value of olive oil.

☝️ The colour change means the colour change of the original green olive fruit. This first turns purple, then black.
Italian olive color change

What methods of olive harvesting are there?

The quality, taste, acidity and other properties of olive oil are not only determined by when the olives are harvested - the harvesting process also plays an important role.

The harvesting method that best preserves the quality of the Italian olives is hand-picking using the traditional "brucatura" method: here, the tree branches are shaken and the olives are caught in nets laid out on the ground.

This gentle process minimizes pressure points and other damage to the olives, which in turn affect the quality of the oil pressed from them.

From olive to oil - this is how Italian extra virgin olive oil is made

In the various stages of Italian EVOO production, various extraction methods are used, each of which uses different machinery and equipment. 

The type of machinery differs not only technically, but also in terms of production, the degree of mechanisation, how the work is organised, the qualitative and quantitative extraction results and production costs.

For almost all types of machinery and equipment, the extraction process can basically be divided into five consecutive phases:

  1. Preparation phase: The olives are prepared for further processing (e.g. washing).
  2. Grinding: In this step of the process, the olives are crushed, which tears the flesh cells to release the oil. The ground olives form a paste known as pasta d'olio in Italian.
  3. Malaxing: This involves "mixing" the olive pulp, in order to be able to separate the oil more easily in the subsequent step. 
  4. Extraction of the olive must: In this step, the liquid components - the vegetable water and oil - are separated from the solid components of the olive pulp. These residues are referred to as olive pomace (sansa in Italian), whereas the liquid part is referred to as olive or oil must (mosto d'olio in Italian).
  5. Separating the olive oil. This step requires a lot of delicacy. Failure to carry out this step may result in serious quality defects in the final product. In the case of extra virgin olive oil, this inevitably results in its being downgraded to a lower quality grade.
☝️ The Olive paste consists of olive oil and vegetable water as well as solid ingredients.
☝️ The olive pomace is made up of the solid remnants of skins, pulp, seeds and olive pits.
☝️ Finally, in addition to the vegetable water and olive oil, the olive must contains a residual quantity of solids suspended in the fluid, which is called oil sludge (morchia in Italian).

What are polyphenols?

Polyphenols are organic molecules that, in addition to its special flavour, give olive oil stability and a range of valuable nutritional and healthy properties. 

These molecules are natural antioxidants found in olives as well as other plants which slow down the aging process.

What are peroxides?

Unlike polyphenols, peroxides react with oxygen. This oxidation reaction leads to degradation processes and thus to a reduction in quality.

The number of peroxides in the oil increases over time, making the oil rancid. The chemical compounds formed during this process cause an unpleasant taste and smell of the oil. Therefore, its peroxide number at the time of marketing must be as low as possible. For "extra virgin" olive oil, the relevant EU directive prescribes a maximum value of 20.

So which is the best Italian olive oil?

Extra virgin olive oil, of course! But, as we have seen, there are many differences between Italian extra virgin oils. 

Extra virgin oils from Sicily, Tuscany, Puglia and Lake Garda each have their own particular taste and organoleptic characteristics. 

The choice of EVOO depends very much on your personal taste and how you use it in your cooking. And the best way to choose the best Italian olive oil is undoubtedly by doing a tasting.

The fruity taste of olives can have three degrees: 

  • Light
  • Medium
  • Intense

It is indicated graphically with the image of three olives. The first olive indicates the fruity taste of EVO oil, the second the medium fruity taste and the third the intense fruity taste.

Light Fruity Taste tending towards sweet with a delicate fragrance
Medium Fruity Tasty and with a good balance between bitter and spicy
Intense Fruity Bitter and spicy taste, it is the Italian EVOO richest in antioxidants

Light fruity oil goes well with very delicate foods, such as fish. Intense fruity Italian oil has strong bitter and spicy notes and goes well with savoury foods, such as meat. Follow these guidelines when choosing extra virgin olive oil for cooking your recipes.

One important thing to say is that organic extra virgin olive oil does not taste different from non-organic EVOO.


Now that you know all the characteristics of Italian extra virgin olive oil, you are sure to be able to find the one that is right for you!

In the product details of each Italian olive oil available to buy in our shop, you will find useful information to help you choose:

  • taste
  • aroma
  • uses in cooking
  • colour
  • olive oil producer
  • Italian region of production
  • type of olives and harvest
  • filtering
  • extraction method

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