52K reads


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.
By Daniel Dawson
Jul. 30, 2020 11:01 UTC

For the past 6,000 years, peo­ple have been eat­ing domes­ti­cated olives and press­ing the dru­pes for oil. 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 the Mediterranean region, largely thanks to Phonecian traders, who first brought olive trees to places 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 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 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 dif­fer 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.


Country: Spain
Use: Oil

According to a recent study, about one-third of the world’s olive oil pro­duc­tion comes from Picual olives. 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 Jaén, in Andalusia. However, this durable vari­ety also has been exported world­wide and thrives in places as var­ied as New Zealand, Egypt and California.


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 is also used as table olives. Their fairly low polyphe­nol con­cen­tra­tion gives them a mild, but­tery fla­vor many con­sumers pre­fer.


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 to their har­di­ness – they 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, with 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.


Country: Italy
Use: Oil

Leccino olives are one of Italy’s most promi­nent cul­ti­vars, with deep his­tor­i­cal roots 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.


Country: Italy
Use: Oil

Also orig­i­nat­ing in the 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 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.


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 viable cul­ti­vars in many 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 with an oil yield of up to 25 per­cent. The oil is gen­er­ally char­ac­ter­ized as robust and bit­ter and is also touted for its high polyphe­nols and other antiox­i­dants.


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 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 turn­ing black and 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.


Country: Greece
Use: Oil

Koroneiki olives are the chief oil vari­ety in Greece and are grown through­out the main­land and 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 is well-suited to inten­sive (high-den­sity mechan­i­cal) har­vest­ing. As a result, Koroneiki olives are grown in 19 dif­fer­ent coun­tries world­wide.

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.


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 a highly pro­duc­tive tree, Cobrançosa olives are medium-sized and yield an oil with a dis­tinc­tive and intense spicy and bit­ter fla­vor.

Despite 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 also Mission olives.

See Also:The Best Mission Olive Oils

Mission trees pro­duce small dru­pes, yield­ing a milder 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 Guide to 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, more awarded oils were made with Picual than any other cul­ti­var, fol­lowed by Koroneiki, Coratina, Arbequina and Frantoio.


Related Articles