Part of our continuing special coverage of the 2021 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.
Among the winners celebrating their success after a tough harvest season were producers from Italy’s two largest islands: Sicily and Sardinia.
We were delighted to learn of the Gold Award because it represents a step forward in the quest for quality and distinctiveness. It is a sure sign that we are heading the right way.
Producers from both regions overcame the challenges of erratic weather and a market reshaped by the sanitary measures associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. However, dozens of Gold and Silver Awards confirmed the high quality of their work.
The winning producers told Olive Oil Times the high human costs of the pandemic countermeasures in a sector whose primary operations – growing, harvesting and processing olives – often represent joyful communal activities and events.See Also: The Best Olive Oils from Italy
They also stressed how the effects of the changing climate unevenly hit the territory with unpredictable results for production. Still, most of them found new opportunities in the changing market scenario, which did not hinder their successful participation in the competition.
The last harvesting season in both regions has been affected by extreme weather events and labor shortages. In some groves, the production volumes were also curtailed by the usual biennial off-year for many cultivars.
“2020 is a year we need to put behind us for its human costs: the suffering caused by the many months of lockdown, the stagnant markets, the nightmare of a potentially deadly virus and the uncertainties about the future of our activities,” Nicola Di Genova, owner of Baglio Ingardia, told Olive Oil Times after earning a Gold Award for his 29 Grand Cru IGP Sicilia.
“It has been awful, but as the restrictions are now set aside, for the most part, we already had a new beginning, with the production of top-of-class olive oils and wines,” he added. “We are delighted by the Gold Award received in the first year of participation at the NYIOOC, which marks our first year of production of the IGP Sicilia extra virgin olive oil.”
The focus of Baglio Ingardia’s work is mainly on selecting and handling the olives, explained Di Genova. While the four different Grand Cru produced by Baglio Ingardia come from specific sections of the grove, the olives are treated the same way but harvested at separate times according to their different stages of ripeness.
“We manually select the olives, and we process them within half an hour of harvesting,” Di Genova said, emphasizing the special attention devoted to the kneading process and the deployment of the most recent pressing, transformation and storage technologies.
“A bottle of our extra virgin olive oil represents one year of work which sometimes comes out of a difficult harvest,” he said. “In our area, for instance, thermal shocks due to the changing climate may affect the presence of pathogens such as the fruit fly or the olive moth, the attacks of which are not easily diverted by our organic weapons.”
“It is not easy for us farmers to keep the excellence of our products up year after year,” Di Genova added.
With three Gold Awards for its flagship products, Frantoi Cutrera, another Sicilian farmer, once again confirmed its place among the world’s best extra virgin olive oil producers.
“In 2020, during flowering, the weather has kept warm and dry, and that favored the fruit set,” Sebastiano Salafia, the family company’s marketing director, told Olive Oil Times. “Moreover, the thermal profile typical of this area has improved the quality of the olive oil.”
“Primo PDO Monti Iblei is made exclusively from the Tonda Iblea cultivar, a native tree of the Iblei mountains, our home,” he added. “This olive tree has ancient roots since it is believed to have been imported during the Arab rule in Sicily, between the eighth and 12th century.”
The company’s grove is the living witnesses of the work of generations of local farmers, with many centenary and some millenary trees. The Salafia family has been caring for the trees for decades.
“My grandfather has always invested all his energies, allowing us to continue his passion and the connection he felt with an ancient, millenary culture,” he said. “My family and I have treasured the traditional growing techniques, and we apply them increasingly technologically and sustainably.”
As an established high-quality producer, Frantoi Cutrera experienced all of the challenges caused by the pandemic.
“It’s been a difficult year,” Salafia said. “We had to face a labor shortage during harvesting and had to work with the severe limitations due to the sanitary emergency rules.”
“The closure of the Horeca [hospitality] sector caused damage, but we feel lucky because we overcame all of these obstacles and had a great year for the quality of our olive oil,” he added. “These awards compensate all of the sacrifices we endured.”
Situated 250 meters above sea level, in one of Sicily’s most famous olive growing regions, Tenute Caracci struck gold for the second straight year at the NYIOOC with a PDO Valle del Belice.
“It’s been such a joy to get the news of the Gold Award,” Mirko Caracci, the company’s owner, told Olive Oil Times. “Our extra virgin olive oil is truly a unique product because its characteristics depend on our very special terroir, comprising the land, climate and the thermal differences between day and night.”
“The Protected Designation of Origin comes from the Belice Valley because only in this limited area these conditions occur and endow our olive oil with its award-winning traits,” he added.
Like many other producers across Italy, the closure of the hospitality sector hurt the company’s sales. However, they strengthened their e‑commerce channels, which will continue to add value for the producers in the future.
“We saw a strengthening of the direct sales to the customers, who began consuming much more olive oil at home given the closure of the restaurants,” Caracci said. “E‑commerce proved essential in giving us the possibility to develop our company further.”
The producer added that part of the secret to the company’s success is the combination of an 80-year olive oil-producing tradition with the latest technology.
“My grandfather had a few groves with century-old olive trees, and over time he planted many others, moving from self-production and consumption to sales,” said Caracci, who is a 30-year-old farmer with degrees in agronomy and enology.
“Thanks to my studies, our company takes the best from my grandfather’s methods and joins them with the latest technology, with a strong focus on quality and the respect of nature,” he added. “My mission is to give birth to top-of-class quality products while respecting the environment.”
On the other side of Sicily, the producers behind the Agrestis Cooperative attributed the combination of their century and millenary olive trees and grove elevation to their success at the 2021 NYIOOC.
“We were delighted to learn of the Gold Award because it represents a step forward in the quest for quality and distinctiveness,” Salvatore Paparone, the cooperative’s owner, told Olive Oil Times. “It is a sure sign that we are heading the right way.”
The Agrestis Cooperative earned a Gold Award for its Bell’Omio Bio, an organic extra virgin olive oil.
Based at the foot of Monte Lauro, Agrestis operates in the countryside surrounding Buccheri, where olive growing represents an ancient tradition and where several 2021 NYIOOC winners are located.
“The temperature variations of these magnificent mountains keep our trees strong and provide us unique Tonda Iblea olives, which are native to the area and have special organoleptic properties,” Paparone said.
Unlike most companies, the producers behind Agrestis could use the time created by the Covid-19 lockdowns to meticulously harvest and mill their olives, receiving one of their best yields yet.
“We are lucky to live and work here,” Paparone said. “Buccheri is such a small village, surrounded by nature. In the first part of the pandemic, the world stopped for the first time in decades. We had to re-organize, and the past season brought us one of the best yields in the history of our company.”
However, the sanitary emergency did not impact all local producers in the same way. The producers behind Vernèra, who are also located in Buccheri, told Olive Oil Times that the “pandemic has been and continues to be a disaster.”
“Beyond all the worries for the wellbeing of our friends, we had to face a closed market,” owner Mariagrazia Spanò said.
Still, Vernèra triumphed at the 2021 NYIOOC with a Gold Award for the fourth time in a row for its Le Case di Lavinia brand, a monocultivar Tonda Iblea.
“Producing a top-quality olive oil means bringing a niche product to the market, which if you look at its price, might not be competitive,” Spanò said. “Extra virgin olive oil needs to be described to the customer, so they appreciate its story and learn about its sensorial and nutraceutical qualities.”
Spanò was happy to learn of the new success at the NYIOOC. The consistency with which the company has performed at the competition gives the producer confidence that he continues to move in the right direction.
“It is an honor and a pleasure, a confirmation of the reliability we put in our work, focusing on quality and not quantity,” he said. “The fourth award in a row gives us the certainty that we are heading the right way on the path our grandfathers laid out for us five generations back.”
While Sicily may be more well-known for its olive oil production, producers on Sardinia also proved their enduring quality at the World Olive Oil Competition.See Also: Olive Oils From Sardinia Find a Modern Audience
Accademia Olearia was among the winning producers from the second largest island in the Mediterranean. The company earned a Silver Award for its Riserva del Produttore brand.
“It is our flagship product,” Giuseppe Fois, the company’s founder, told Olive Oil Times. “The birth of this product marked the beginning of our operations. Therefore, it represents the philosophy of our company: the quest for excellence and the valorization of our territory.”
The Riserva del Produttore is a medium blend of Bosana and Semidana olives that previously won a Gold Award in 2019.
“Bosana is the dominant cultivar and brings its characteristics of intensity and richness of flavors and tasting sensations, which reflect the charm of our island,” Fois said.
Like producers in Sicily and the rest of Italy, Fois said that the pandemic had a profound impact on Sardinia’s farmers. However, earning the Silver Award served as an excellent reward for all the difficulties the company had to overcome and motivates them for future harvests.
“Participating in such a competition is always a big challenge, even for established companies that have already been recognized,” he said. “That is the reason that it is very relevant for us to see our quest for excellence being confirmed.”
“The olive oil sector has changed so much over the years, and many new brands compete on the international market,” Fois added. “For us to participate and win means to renew challenge and results, a confirmation that our territory and our passion may promote our productions globally.”