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 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.

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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 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.


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 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.


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 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

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 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.


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 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.


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 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.


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 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.


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 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.


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 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.


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