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Rioja Alavesa's Olive Oil Renaissance

Rioja Alavesa is famous for its wine production. A new book details the Basque sub-region's olive oil history as local groups work to revitalize the sector.

Photo courtesy of Viajes & Vinos.
Jan. 11, 2019
By Rosa Gonzalez-Lamas
Photo courtesy of Viajes & Vinos.

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Olives are mak­ing a come­back in Rioja Alavesa, a small dis­trict located in the south of the Span­ish Basque Coun­try.

The dis­trict is also a sub-region of DOC Rioja, which is renowned for its award-win­ning wines and is one of only two DOC (Denom­i­nación de Ori­gen Cal­i­fi­cada) regions in all of Spain. How­ever, at the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, olive trees dom­i­nated the land­scape.

It is a human book, with for­mi­da­ble char­ac­ters, that reads with emo­tion.- Julio Flor, jour­nal­ist

A new book pub­lished by Fer­nando Martínez-Bujanda and Antoni Juan Pas­tor chron­i­cles the story of the olive in this wine-cen­tered region. El Olivo de Rioja Alavesa, un Com­pañero Cen­te­nario (the Olive Tree From Rioja Alavesa, A Cen­te­nary Part­ner, in Eng­lish) tells the story of Rioja Alavesa’s olive sec­tor through the eyes of mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions, from old farm­ers who relate his­tor­i­cal events of the region to young pro­duc­ers start­ing new projects.

See more: Olive Oil Cul­ture

Along with telling the story of the olives in this dis­trict, the book also pro­vides gen­eral infor­ma­tion about the his­tory of olive cul­ti­va­tion and oil pro­duc­tion and con­tains a sec­tion with proverbs and a glos­sary of olive and oil-spe­cific terms, includ­ing some employed only in Rioja Alavesa.

In early 1900s, olive trees dom­i­nated the dis­tric­t’s land­scape. About 2,500 acres of trees cov­ered Rioja Alavesa and sus­tained its agro-econ­omy in the absence of vines, which only totaled 500 acres and had been dec­i­mated by phyl­lox­era.

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This began to change in the 1950s and 1960s when grapes once again became a prof­itable crop. Sell­ing olives soon turned out to be more lucra­tive than mak­ing olive oil, which led to the removal of 2,000 acres of trees by 2000.

For­tu­nately, the 2000s wit­nessed a renewed inter­est in cul­ti­vat­ing olives. This change led to the start of Oleum, a project launched in 2007 with the goals of putting a halt to the destruc­tion of olive groves, plant­ing new trees, and get­ting younger gen­er­a­tions more involved in olive cul­ti­va­tion and oil pro­duc­tion.

Martínez-Bujanda, the for­mer pres­i­dent of Rioja Alavesa’s Table of Oil and Olive (MAORA) is lead­ing the charge. He founded Oleum and has taken respon­si­bil­ity for trans­form­ing olives back into a prof­itable com­mer­cial agri-food.

The Rioja Alavesa Olive Asso­ci­a­tion (AORA) has also taken a lead­ing role in revi­tal­iz­ing olive cul­ti­va­tion, start­ing up and work­ing on var­i­ous projects in the dis­trict over the past two years.

As of 2017, there were approx­i­mately 1,200 acres of olive trees in Rioja Alavesa, 500 of which were old olive groves that sur­vived the destruc­tion of the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tury.

Approx­i­mately 75 per­cent of the olive trees – includ­ing the major­ity of the very old trees – planted in Rioja Alavesa are in the munic­i­pal­i­ties of Moreda de Alava, Lantziego and Oión. There are also cen­te­nary olive trees in Laguardia.

Well adapted to the cold and dry cli­mate of Rioja Alavesa, Arróniz (also known as Royuela in La Rioja) is the most pop­u­lar local olive vari­ety, pro­duc­ing oils with pleas­ant aro­mas, mild fla­vors and low bit­ter­ness.

Even though they do not yet have a Pro­tected Geo­graph­i­cal Indi­ca­tion, Rioja Alavesa’s olive oils have labels that cer­tify their ori­gin and type: Eusko­la­bel, Eco­log­i­cal, and Eusko­la­bel-Eco­log­i­cal.

AORA is now work­ing on posi­tion­ing Rioja Alavesa’s local oils in the very pre­mium end of the Span­ish extra vir­gin olive oil mar­ket. To this end, the orga­ni­za­tion is pro­vid­ing tech­ni­cal train­ing to olive grow­ers, so that they will acquire skills to improve the qual­ity of the har­vested olives as well as the pro­duc­tion of oil at olive mills, of which there are still very few and only a small num­ber.

Some small winer­ies with olive trees are pro­duc­ing lim­ited amounts of olive oil too. They hope to use the oils as a com­ple­ment to their wines and sell them dur­ing tourist sea­son. There are also plans at many winer­ies to expand olive oil pro­duc­tion capac­i­ties.

Olive oil tourism, oleo­tourismo’ is already begin­ning to take off in Rioja Alavesa, which already has an annual regional Olive Oil Fair at which local oils are show­cased.

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