Early October olives in Crete (Photo: Lisa Radinovsky for Olive Oil Times)

Early harvest extra virgin olive oils can be more expensive and hard to find than other extra virgin oils since unripe olives produce less oil and need to be picked right from the trees. Even so, more are finding their bitter taste, extra low acidity, and higher antioxidant content worth the money.

According to Agronews’ Alexander Bikas, early harvest olive oil costs at least one euro more than conventional olive oil. Bikas wrote that the auctions of the Agricultural Cooperative of the Holy Apostles in Laconia, Greece, which saw the sale of oils produced from Athinoelia and Messinia Koroneiki olives this month to the Italian company Alta Marena for €4.60 per kilogram, “represent a barometer of olive oil prices in Greece,” which leads him to expect Greek EVOO produced later in the season to go for around €3.60.

Bikas also noted that very limited quantities of olive oil were produced from unripe fruit in Greece last year. However, he emphasized that its high polyphenol content appeals to “demanding foreign markets for both pharmaceutical use and “the gourmet restaurants of Italy, the USA and England.”

Argyris Bouras, owner of Eleones Hellenic Olive Products, told Olive Oil Times that he does not believe early harvest olive oils are popular in Greek stores, although Italians like to use early harvest Greek oils to “blend and upgrade low grade olive oils.” On the other hand, many farmers might simply keep the first oil of the season for their own family and friends leaving little available for the marketplace.

Nevertheless, Agronews lists several advantages to pressing unripe olives: gathering fruit early gives the trees a break that leads to high returns every year; harvesting early reduces the chance of damage to olives from frost, hail and similar weather problems, thus reducing farmers’ risks; and the excellent nutritional value of early harvest olive oil is acknowledged worldwide, which makes it a “super-weapon” for olive oil farmers and producers.

The higher chlorophyll content in unripe olives makes the early harvest oil, called “agourelio” in Greek, greener and richer in healthy polyphenols. According to the abstract of a recent study, “there is a positive correlation of a high level of oleocanthal and oleacein in olive oils with the early time of harvest.”

To promote local agricultural products, the Regional Unit of Halkidiki in northern Greece commissioned an analysis of 32 samples from the Halkidiki early olive oil harvest of 2014-15 by the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens Department of Pharmacognosy and Chemistry of Natural Products. The results of the study, which used the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) method developed by Dr. Prokopios Magiatis, were said to prove the high nutritional value of Halkidiki early harvest olive oil compared with other Greek and foreign extra virgin olive oils, given its richness in oleocanthal and oleacein.

The average polyphenol content in the samples from Halkidiki was 495 mg/kg, compared with an international average of 330 mg/kg. Yanni’s Limited PDO Halkidiki Early Harvest boasted the highest level: 1026 mg/kg.

Since 2013, some of the oil that meets the appropriate high quality and production requirements, including milling by October 15, has been distinguished by PDO status as “Agoureleo Chalkidikis.” The polyphenols identified in the Halkidiki early harvest oils have been credited with significant anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, cardioprotective and neuroprotective properties.

Early harvest olive oils outside Halkidiki have also shown the high polyphenol content associated with health benefits. For example, a test of the Governor brand’s unfiltered EVOO using the NMR method showed “the highest levels of phenolic compounds ever recorded in Greece,” 1141 mg/kg, according to the company’s website. George Dafnis, co-owner of Olive Fabrica, which produces this oil, told Olive Oil Times the early harvest of the Lianolia olives in Corfu begins in mid-October each year.

“Early harvest” can refer to different harvest times in different parts of Greece, given variations in climate, olive variety, and elevation. Argyris Bouras explained that the first olive oil of the year comes from Halkidiki, which is more famous for Greece’s largest table olives, the green Hondrolia. Eleones Early Harvest is produced in limited quantities from olives handpicked beginning as early as mid-September, pressed the same day, and bottled in Halkidiki. According to Bouras, Eleones Early Harvest (acidity 0.17) has a shelf life of up to 18 months, rather than the usual 9-10 months for many early harvest oils, because the high levels of antioxidants of Halkidiki delay oxidation.

It is possible to find early harvest Greek extra virgin olive oils produced as late as early November, such as Militsa Limited Release Early Harvest EVOO or Esti Early Harvest, which won a Gold Award at the 2014 NYIOOC. These are both made from Koroneiki olives hand-harvested in the southern Peloponnese.

However, mid October is a more common time for early harvest olive oil production in most of Greece. For example, the Olive Table’s Organic Early Harvest Single Estate EVOO originates in family-owned Koroneiki olive groves in the mountain village of Christianoupolis in Messenia, slightly northwest of Militsa, where the unripe olives are handpicked starting in the second or third week of October and crushed within hours of harvesting.

Within the next few weeks, Terra Creta in Kolymvari, Crete will begin offering its first early harvest extra virgin, with just 4,000 bottles of spicy EVOO produced from Koroneiki olives harvested in mid-October. Marketing Manager Emmanouil Karpadakis emphasized that “a specialized group of professional farmers” with “scientific support” will bring the olives to the mill only a few hours from harvesting. “An authentic early harvest olive oil needs very highly skilled people and carries the passion of those people and the characteristics of the region,” he said.

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