Part of our continuing special coverage of the 2021 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.
Croatian olive oil producers overcame a challenging harvest in 2020 and earned a record number of awards at the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.
Producers from the small central European republic earned 67 Gold and 20 Silver Awards at the world’s most prestigious olive oil quality competition. The large haul of awards comes after the small country’s best harvest in five years, in which production reached 4,600 tons.
This was an exceptional performance for us this year and has exceeded all our expectations.
However, not all producers benefited equally, with the northern Croatian peninsula of Istria enjoying a better harvest than southwestern Dalmatia.
Despite facing drought and other adverse climatic conditions, producers from the country’s southwest still managed to win a record-high number of awards at the competition.See Also: The Best Olive Oils from Croatia
While the Covid-19 pandemic largely did not interfere with the harvest, many producers reported economic challenges, with lowering household incomes and the shutdown of the hospitality sector considerably driving down demand for olive oils.
A recent increase in cheap olive oil imports has also worried some producers, who are concerned that their products will not compete with the less expensive alternatives.
However, the announcement of the NYIOOC winners last month assuaged some of the producers’ concerns. It gave them cause to celebrate the end of yet another challenging but successful crop year.
Among the biggest winners at the 2021 NYIOOC was Al Torcio, a small family-run operation in Istria.
In their third consecutive year entering the competition, Al Torcio won five Gold Awards and three Silver Awards, improving upon their two previous performances at the competition.
“We are very proud of the success achieved, although we did not expect such a large number of awards,” Karmino Beletić, Al Torico’s CEO, told Olive Oil Times. “This was an exceptional performance for us this year and has exceeded all our expectations.”
Part of what has led to Al Torcio’s success is their complete control of the olive oil production process, which includes their newly-updated on-site mill. Beletić carefully controls the entire process, from harvesting to bottling.
He added that another reason for the company’s success is its unique approach to milling. He said that Al Torcio is one of the only millers that produces seven different monovarietal extra virgin olive oils: Leccino, Pendolino, Frantoio, Rosulja, Itrana, Ascolana, Bjelica and Moraiolo. Al Torcio also produces a blend.
In 2020, the company harvested around 40 tons of olives, from which they milled about 3,000 liters of oil, a much lower yield than usual.
“In comparison to previous harvests, oil yields were very low, with some olives even below five percent,” Beletić said. “In addition to poor yields, in the past two years, we have switched to organic olive processing and production.
“This severely limits our resources for olive cultivation and obtaining a healthy fruit, which is the first and most important condition for obtaining the best extra virgin olive oil,” he added.
Winning so many awards over the years at the NYIOOC has profoundly impacted Al Torcio’s brand. Beletić said the awards have led to increased sales inquiries from around the rest of Europe. However, he does not know if he will be able to meet this new demand with his limited production.
Avistiria was yet another multi-award-winning Croatian producer at the 2021 NYIOOC. The Istrian producer began operations in 2015 and has entered the NYIOOC each year since 2018.
This year, Avistria earned a Gold Award for its Stari Buza brand and two Silver Awards for its Istrian blend and Pendolino monovarietal.
Rudolf Nemetschke, the co-owner of Avistria, said that participation at the NYIOOC is vital for his brand as it provides a seal of quality which they can pass on to the buyer.
“2020 was a tough year,” Nemetsche said. “I was glad that our team got these awards, that our path for quality is the correct one.”
Avistria’s focus is on quality and not quantity or marketing, with Nemetschke and his team paying particular attention to the cultivation of the trees.
“Last year, we planted thousands of young olive trees, along with running the existing farm,” he said. “This puts a lot of pressure on the team.”
He added that 2020 was the first year in which they could harvest the trees that they planted in 2016, demonstrating the need for patience and the length of time it takes these investments to begin to pay off.
Avistria considers its olive production process distinct from its competitors in the region. They oversee the process from start to finish, from the initial preparation of the land to harvesting, storage and delivery.
Nemetsche said that this complete control of the entire supply chain allows their customers to trust that they are getting precisely what the bottle’s label says.
Avistria’s olive grove is comprised of 400 old trees and 1,000 young trees. Their total oil production in 2020 was around 400 liters, with the output from the trees planted in 2016 being substantially higher than in previous years.
However, the percentage of oil extracted was substantially lower than in previous years, which was one of the challenges that Nemetsche and his team faced last year.
“Covid-19 was a big challenge, as we live in Austria, but run the olive farm in Istria,” he said. “We have a young team of farming professionals that we had to lead from abroad.”
“A lot of trust and the use of digital technology was necessary to manage all of this,” Nemetsche added. “Traveling was restricted, so we could not even attend the harvest.”
The impact of Covid-19 hit their business hard and forced Nemetsche to re-focus on word-of-mouth recommendations and demand from household consumers. He also sought to educate his buyers about the health benefits of high-quality extra virgin olive oil, especially for the immune system.
Another Istrian producer that struck Gold at the 2021 NYIOOC was OPG Brečević Andrea, which was awarded for its Rheos brand.
The name of the oil originates from the Greek word ‘spring or flow.’ The blend of Leccino, Pendolino, Frantoio, Buža and Istarska Bjelica olives was awarded Gold for the second year in a row.
“The feeling of winning this year is even better than that of last year because we proved our excellent quality even if we are a ‘young’ brand and young manufacturers,” Andrea Brečević said. “It is always nice to receive such an important recognition and realize that all our efforts and work have paid off.”
Brečević said that he is proud of producing an oil recognized for its high quality and added that their plan to change the bottle in which their oils are marketed is also helping the product stand out.
The producer yielded 2,000 liters of extra virgin olive oil last year but said he faced plenty of challenges.
Overall, the past harvest was good for Brečević, but the oil yield was slightly smaller, and this is one of his main challenges; planning ahead to ration all of his resources to take care of the trees without knowing what to expect in the future.
However, Brečević added that winning awards from the NYIOOC is all the motivation to keep going and improve his product.
“The impact of receiving this award is motivation to continue and grow the family business, which was created out of love and passion for olives, Istria and our tradition,” he said.
While plenty of Croatian producers were repeat winners at the NYIOOC, adding to their collection of awards, some producers celebrated their maiden victories.
“We are happy that our effort to produce the highest quality extra virgin olive oil has been recognized,” Vanđelić told Olive Oil Times. “These awards will help us increase international sales.”
Vanđelić produced 5,000 liters of olive oil in the 2020 harvest, which was affected by low levels of rainfall.
However, Vanđelić and his wife, Patricija, believe that this minor setback will not have a long-lasting impact on their fledgling brand.
“There was longer harvesting due to slow maturity of olives,” they said. “However, we always adjust the processing to get extra quality oil. We are waiting for the flowering of olives. We hope for a great yield of olives which makes us very happy.”