For the past 6,000 years, people have been eating domesticated olives and pressing the drupes for oil. In fact, archaeologists have found substantial evidence to suggest that olives were one of the first fruit trees to be domesticated, on the eastern rim of the Mediterranean basin.
Since then, olive tree cultivation has expanded to the rest of Mediterranean region, largely thanks to Phonecian traders, who first brought olive trees to places that are now synonymous with table olive and olive oil production – Tuscany, Andalusia and Tunisia.
These days, olives are grown in dozens of countries on every continent except Antarctica. According to estimates from the International Olive Council, 90 percent of the olives currently being harvested are destined for oil production. The remaining 10 percent are processed as table olives.See Also: Olive Oil Basics
To most casual consumers, it would appear that there are two predominant types of olives: black and green. However, all olives begin as green olives and slowly transform to light brown and reddish-purple, before fully ripening and becoming dark black.
The IOC estimates that 139 olive varieties (or cultivars — the terms may be used interchangeably) grown in 23 different countries account for roughly 85 percent of the world’s olive production.
Each olive cultivar has its own unique chemical and taste characteristics. However, oils made from the same cultivar can be quite different, depending on the cultivation, harvesting and processing variations.
Olive oil made from a single variety is called a monovarietal, or monocultivar olive oil. Blends are crafted using oils from two or more cultivars.
Here are some facts about just a few of the most common varieties used in oil and as table olives.
When transformed into virgin or extra virgin olive oil, Picual varietals have a high level of polyphenols. Less than a quarter of harvested Picual olives are transformed into virgin or extra virgin olive oil, but that number is rising as it continues to win awards on the world stage.See Also: Award-Winning Picual Olive Oils
The vast majority of Picual olives are grown in the province of Jaén, in Andalusia. However, this durable variety also has been exported around the world and thrives in places as varied as New Zealand, Egypt and California.
Use: Oil and table
After Picual, Arbequina olives are the second most commonly used in olive oil production, with roughly 10 percent of the world’s olive oil coming from the native variety of Catalonia.
Due to the small, uniform shape of the drupes, Arbequina olives are easily harvested and frequently chosen for mechanized harvesting operations. Their high oil content and adaptability contribute to their popularity among producers.See Also: Award-Winning Arbequina Olive Oils
Along with being a popular oil variety, Arbequina are also used as table olives. Their fairly low polyphenol concentration gives them a more mild, buttery flavor preferred by many consumers.
Use: Oil and table
Originating in the southern Spanish province of Córdoba, Hojiblanca olives are the third most common cultivar after Picual and Arbequina.
Hojiblanca trees are popular among farmers due both to their hardiness – the trees are both resistant to drought and cold – as well as to their large olives, which have an oil yield of 17 to 19 percent.See Also: The Best Hojiblanca Olive Oils
Oils made from Hojiblanca have a distinctive flavor, characterized by a sweet start and a bitter aftertaste. Since it has a lower oil content than the dominant Picual and Arbequina varieties, Hojiblanca olives are especially popular as table olives.
Leccino olives are one of Italy’s most prominent cultivars, with deep historical roots in the country and many favorable production attributes.
The first mention of the cultivar in historic literature comes in the Middle Ages and it is believed that Leccino olives originated in Tuscany. The variety, which has an average oil yield of about 18 to 21 percent, is now commonly grown throughout northern and central Italy, thriving in the cooler weather of the hilly and mountainous heart of the peninsula.See Also: The Best Leccino Olive Oils
Leccino trees grow quickly and are very productive, under the correct conditions, which has made them popular with producers not only from Italy, but also Chile, Australia and California.
Also originating in central Italy region of Tuscany, Frantoio olives are another prominent Italian cultivar for olive oil production. Frantoio trees grow well in mild conditions and are also more tolerant of extremely hot and cold weather than other varieties.
Frantoio olives have an average oil yield of 23 to 28 percent, making them popular among commercial growers. The resulting oil is generally characterized as fruity with a pleasant bitterness.See Also: The Best Frantoio Olive Oils
As a result of these three factors, Frantoio olives have been exported all over the world and are commercially harvested on six continents.
Along with the Leccino and Frantoio varieties, Coratina olives are one of the most popular cultivars in Italy. Originally from the southern Italian region of Puglia, the olives are highly adaptable.
Due to this adaptability, Coratina olives have been proven to be viable cultivars in a wide range of places. However, the variety is not commonly grown outside of Italy, in part, due to the non-uniform shape of the olives, which makes harvesting more difficult.See Also: The Best Coratina Olive Oils
Coratina trees produce large and rounded olives, which have an oil yield of up to 25 percent. The oil is generally characterized as robust and bitter and is also touted for its high level of polyphenols and other antioxidants.
Use: Table and oil
Hailing from the southwest of the Peloponnese peninsula, Kalamata olives are perhaps the most well-known table olive varieties. The traditional Greek olives are large and harvested once they have fully ripened – turning dark purple or black.
The olives are described as meaty, due to the abundance of flesh and relatively low oil content – about seven percent – and frequently preserved in wine vinegar or olive oil. The olives are handpicked after having turned black and are never harvested while green.
In the E.U. and several countries with trade agreements, Kalamata olives enjoy Protected Designation of Origin status, meaning the name can only be used for olives from the Kalamata region of Greece.
Koroneiki olives are the chief oil variety in Greece and are grown throughout the mainland as well as the country’s many islands. It is estimated that between 50 and 60 percent of Greece’s olive growing acreage is dedicated to Koroneiki.
Along with the Arbequina and Picual varieties, Koroneiki are well-suited to intensive (high-density mechanical) harvesting. As a result, Koroneiki olives are grown in 19 different countries around the world.See Also: The Best Koroneiki Olive Oils
Generally, Koroneiki olives have a high level of polyphenols and oleocanthal, which gives the oils a bitter and intense flavor.
Making up roughly 10 percent of Portugal’s olive-growing acreage, Cobrançosa olives are one of the country’s most popular varieties.
Considered to be a highly productive tree, Cobrançosa olives tend to be medium sized and yield an oil with a distinctive and intense spicy and bitter flavor.
In spite of being traditionally grown in the hilly Trás-os-Montes region of the country, Cobrançosa olives have spread throughout the rest of the country.See Also: The Best Cobrancosa Olive Oils
Olive oils produced from the olives in Trás-os-Montes, Beira Alta, North Alentejo and Alentejo Interior all have a Protected Designation of Origin indication.
Country: United States
Use: Oil and Table
The flagship olive variety of the United States, Mission olives were first developed in California after Franciscan missionaries arrived in San Diego Bay in 1769. Over the next 50 years, another 21 missions would be established in California, each with its own olive grove.
Today, Mission olives remain one of the primary varieties grown in California, representing about eight percent of the state’s olive-growing acreage. Roughly 50 percent of the table olives produced in California are Mission olives as well.See Also: The Best Mission Olive Oils
Mission trees produce small drupes, which yield a more mild and buttery oil. As table olives, Mission olives are both harvested and brined before ripening or cured once they have ripened.
Discover award-winning cultivars
The Official Index of the World’s Best Olive Oils has a feature that lets you filter by cultivar to explore the award-winning brands that are made from each variety.
This year, there were more awarded oils made with Picual than any other cultivar, followed by Koroneiki, Coratina, Arbequina and Frantoio.