Basics

How Many Olive Varieties Are There and Which Are the Most Popular?

There are more than one thousand olive varieties growing in dozens of countries on six continents. Here are a few of the most common used in table olive and olive oil production.
Jul. 30, 2020
Daniel Dawson

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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 more: 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.

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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.


Picual

Coun­try: Spain
Use: Oil

Accord­ing to a recent study, about one-third of the world’s olive oil pro­duc­tion comes from Picual olives. This is because Picual olives boast a high oil con­tent – between 20 and 27 per­cent.

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 more: 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.


Arbe­quina

Coun­try: Spain
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 more: 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.


Hoji­blanca

Coun­try: Spain
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 top 19 per­cent.

See more: 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

Coun­try: Italy
Use: Oil

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 more: 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.


Fran­toio

Coun­try: Italy
Use: Oil

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 more: 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.


Coratina

Coun­try: Italy
Use: Oil

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 more: 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.


Kala­mata

Coun­try: Greece
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

Coun­try: Greece
Use: Oil

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 more: 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.


Cobrançosa

Coun­try: Por­tu­gal
Use: Oil

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 more: 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.


Mis­sion

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 more: 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.


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