`Olive Varietals: Some Interesting Peculiarities


Olive Varietals: Some Interesting Peculiarities

Apr. 18, 2012

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Although the major­ity of peo­ple are barely aware of a few, the fact is that there are over 2,000 cat­a­logued olive vari­etals in the world. Of these, almost 400 are grown in Spain, although just three occupy over half of our olive grove sur­face: Picual, Hoji­blanca and Cor­ni­cabra.

All ani­mals, plants and other liv­ing beings are sci­en­tif­i­cally clas­si­fied accord­ing to their Trunk, Class, Order, Fam­ily, Sex and Species. This log­i­cal order makes the study of the phe­nom­e­non of life under the evo­lu­tion cri­te­ria pos­si­ble.

Since it is not our inten­tion to analyse the mat­ter, on this occa­sion we will limit our­selves to sim­ply remind­ing you that Olea Europaea L. is the Latin name that the Botanic field has assigned to the olive tree.

We all know that these trees can also be cat­a­logued into var­i­ous dif­fer­ent sub-cat­e­gories, includ­ing Arbe­quina, Cor­ni­cabra or Gordal, among many oth­ers. But, in what way are they dif­fer­ent? The answer lies in the type of vari­etal they rep­re­sent. This con­cept is only applied to the cul­ti­vated plants which, per­tain­ing to one same species, present a series of per­ma­nent char­ac­ter­is­tics of their own which are passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion which make their cul­ti­va­tion more inter­est­ing than that of wild plants. It’s as sim­ple as that.

The case of the olive tree


At present, myr­iad vari­etals are known to us, some more mod­ern and some more aban­doned. Some species, such as the vine or the rose, are rep­re­sented by close to 10,000, a far higher fig­ure than the 2,000 known olive vari­etals. Yet, con­trary to what occurs with other plants, the cul­ti­vated olives express a very inter­est­ing genetic char­ac­ter­is­tic that trans­forms all those of the same vari­etal into prac­ti­cal clones. Thus, all of them are genet­i­cally iden­ti­cal or, at least, extremely sim­i­lar. This is due to the fact that back in their day they spread veg­e­ta­tively, that is, via a branch or sim­i­lar method that ended up set­ting down roots.

In Spain, we have around 400 dif­fer­ent reg­is­tered vari­etals which, accord­ing to their impor­tance are clas­si­fied into major­ity, sec­ondary and minor­ity. There is a lim­ited num­ber of the major­ity vari­etals, but they pre­dom­i­nate in the crops. Their pro­duc­tion lev­els tend to be very high and this means they are the farm­ers’ favourites. They are rep­re­sented by the Picual, the Cor­ni­cabra and the Hoji­blanca, which as a whole cover one mil­lion hectares, or in other words, over half of our olive groves.

For their part, the sec­ondary vari­etals are also impor­tant, although they are less rep­re­sented. Finally, the minor­ity vari­etals are those which, as a whole, also have a cer­tain degree of impor­tance and although they are cul­ti­vated in local areas, they are lim­ited and in some cases about to dis­ap­pear.

The ori­gin of the vari­etals

In the begin­ning, prim­i­tive men observed that cer­tain wild olive trees pro­duced more olives than oth­ers and that these, in turn, pro­vided a larger quan­tity of oil. Log­i­cally, these cul­ti­vars were more and more appeal­ing for use in agri­cul­ture, which is why they soon spread through­out other lands as new waves of migra­tion were trig­gered.

In their new homes, these olive trees were pol­li­nated by other wild cul­ti­vars that were autochtho­nous to the var­i­ous areas, and the fruit ger­mi­nated gave rise to new wild olive trees lead­ing to the appear­ance of many new vari­etals in a sort of game of chance dri­ven by man and nature. That is how, for thou­sands of years, new vari­etals were cre­ated.

An aver­age mod­ern-day con­sumer is capa­ble of reel­ing off numer­ous grape types, such as Gar­nacha, Tem­pranillo, Syrah, Caber­net Sauvi­gnon, Albar­iño… Yet, that same con­sumer barely knows any olive vari­etals at all. Max­i­mum, they might have vaguely heard of Picual, Hoji­blanca or Arbe­quina, but not much more. They do not know that each and every one of the pro­duc­tion areas in our coun­try grow one or more rep­re­sen­ta­tive vari­etals, that pro­duce oils with such an exclu­sive per­son­al­ity that it can sur­prise us.

Over the com­ing edi­tions, we will con­tinue to analyse this facet of the olive tree and dis­cover the most cul­ti­vated vari­etals in Spain, its oils and the types of table olives.

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