Rediscovering Ancient Varieties to Meet Today's Challenges

Recovered ancient olive cultivars seem to provide a good answer to today's challenges such as those posed by climate change, extreme temperatures and pests.

By Ylenia Granitto
Aug. 27, 2019 08:37 UTC

The num­ber of olive vari­eties used to pro­duce high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oils con­tin­ues to grow at a global level. Figures from the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition show a greater diver­sity of cul­ti­vars received awards at this year’s edi­tion than in any pre­vi­ous year.

Employed indi­vid­u­ally or mixed into blends, each type has dis­tin­guish­ing chem­i­cal and organolep­tic char­ac­ter­is­tics, which may vary to some degree based on fac­tors such as pro­duc­tion area and cul­ti­va­tion tech­niques. Growers have under­stood the poten­tials of these fac­tors and started to explore olive bio­di­ver­sity in order to achieve both sen­so­r­ial and man­u­fac­tur­ing improve­ment.

DNA analy­sis will give us fur­ther, reli­able infor­ma­tion about this plant, which deals very well with frosts, winds and drought.- Luciano Pepe, olive oil pro­ducer in Basilicata

Up until a few decades ago — when all of the farm­ers’ efforts were con­cen­trated on pro­duc­ing as much olive oil as pos­si­ble in order to ensure their fam­i­lies’ and com­mu­ni­ties’ self-suf­fi­ciency, regard­less of qual­ity — many types of olives were set aside because of their low yield. Often trees bear­ing small dru­pes dif­fi­cult to pick were replaced by oth­ers which were more pro­duc­tive and eas­ier to har­vest; it was a ques­tion of pro­duc­tion choices.

In recent years, research into new cul­ti­vars has occurred in par­al­lel with an intense pro­mo­tion of minor and lit­tle-known vari­eties, and the recov­ery of ancient and for­got­ten ones, which in some cases have not yet been offi­cially clas­si­fied.

See Also:Olive Oil Health Benefits

The olive oil world is expe­ri­enc­ing a redis­cov­ery of new­found, but actu­ally ancient vari­eties, which in sev­eral cases, seem to pro­vide solu­tions to today’s chal­lenges, such as those posed by cli­mate change, includ­ing extreme tem­per­a­tures and out­breaks of pests.

Genetic vari­abil­ity, and in par­tic­u­lar the abil­ity of species to resist envi­ron­men­tal stresses, is actu­ally a major area of study: research is ongo­ing and projects in this field have been launched by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 plan.

Among the most recently redis­cov­ered, the vari­ety Minuta di Chiusi is wide­spread in a small area of the Val di Chiana (Siena) between Chiusi and Cetona, in Tuscany. According to research, it has an ancient bond with the ter­ri­tory, hav­ing been grown in Etruscan times. From its small fruits (min­uta means tiny” in Italian) local farm­ers extracted an extra vir­gin olive oil with green notes of wild herbs, almond and this­tle, marked by a high con­tent in polyphe­nols.

It was prob­a­bly put aside by local farm­ers due to its very low yield and high detach­ment force of fruits,” Luca Mencaglia, an expe­ri­enced tech­ni­cian who has col­lab­o­rated in its recov­ery, explained. Taking these fac­tors into account, pro­duc­ers should con­sider its good response to extreme tem­per­a­tures. According to reports, it emerged unscathed from severe frosts in 1929 and 1956, and sur­vived through the espe­cially cold 1985 win­ter.

Mencaglia pointed out that these plants are also largely unaf­fected by the olive fruit fly and has a great resis­tance to dis­eases such as the olive knot, (caused by the bac­terium Pseudomonas savas­tanoi).

Notwithstanding yield and har­vest costs, the Minuta di Chiusi is a strong plant that gives a very good prod­uct,” Mencaglia said.

Minuta di Chiusi olives. Photo cour­tesy of Arsia Toscana.

In Sicily, at La Goccia d’Oro coop­er­a­tive in Menfi, pro­duc­tion is focused on Nocellara, Biancolilla and Cerasuola.

However, for some years we have been exper­i­ment­ing also with other tra­di­tional cul­ti­vars of this area,” chief oper­a­tion offi­cer Accursio Alagna said. In par­tic­u­lar, we have looked at Pidicuddara, which has prac­ti­cally been dis­carded over the last decades because the har­vest is par­tic­u­larly com­plex.”

He sug­gests that due to high fruit detach­ment force, many have prob­a­bly pre­ferred to cul­ti­vate other types of olive trees that were eas­ier to man­age.

Our cur­rent pro­duc­tion lines give us great sat­is­fac­tion, how­ever, since we are con­stantly look­ing for improve­ment, we decided to exper­i­ment with this regained vari­ety,” he said. About 400 plants are scat­tered through­out the ter­ri­tory of our coop­er­a­tive, and we real­ized that they are par­tic­u­larly resis­tant to var­i­ous path­o­genic attacks, which in recent years have become more fre­quent.”

They col­lected Pidicuddara fruits with the help of har­vest tools, between late October and early November, and obtained an excel­lent extra vir­gin olive oil, rich in polyphe­nols.

We will there­fore soon orga­nize this pro­duc­tion in a more struc­tured way,” Alagna said.


At the other end of Sicily, Salvatore Mocciaro man­ages about 3,000 plants of Nocellara Messinese, Nocellara del Belice, Santagatese, and Verdello at Villa Colonna farm, in the heart of the Nebrodi regional nat­ural park.

The lat­ter two are very inter­est­ing,” Mocciaro said. My Santagatese mono­va­ri­etal has a light-medium fruity, with almond and herbs on the nose and in the mouth, char­ac­ter­ized by har­monic bit­ter and spicy sen­sa­tions. Verdello is a minor vari­ety, which in recent years, has been reval­ued by sev­eral pro­duc­ers of the area with great results, thanks to its medium fruity of green almond, this­tle, and freshly cut grass, which gives pleas­ant per­sis­tent sen­sa­tions.”

Mocciaro explained that its small, firm drupe resisted the warm humid weather of April, May and June very well. We had no trou­ble with late flow­er­ing and pol­li­na­tion,” he said. Moreover, I observed a lim­ited alter­na­tion in pro­duc­tion, which means that we can count on con­stant pro­duc­tion.”

In Basilicata, Luciano Pepe and Andrea Lago are wait­ing for the DNA results on some olives har­vested at Fontana dei Santi, in the ter­ri­tory of Albano di Lucania.

Our groves are located between 400 and 700 meters (1,300 and 2,300 feet), and we have been exposed to freez­ing winds in win­ter and intense heat in sum­mer, espe­cially in recent years,” Pepe said. Then, in addi­tion to Ogliarola del Bradano, Racioppa and Coratina, we started to test autochtho­nous vari­eties, which have been over­looked over the last decades but proved to be resis­tant to extreme weather con­di­tions.”

They, in fact, observed that some plants passed unharmed through par­tic­u­larly severe sea­sons.

Three years ago, in win­ter, we reached 15 degrees below zero (5 degrees Fahrenheit), and in sum­mer we suf­fered a record drought with tem­per­a­tures up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit),” Lago explained. Then, in spring, these plants also with­stood a sud­den rise in tem­per­a­ture and, despite late flow­er­ing, we have not observed any sig­nif­i­cant falling.”

The two pro­duc­ers spec­i­fied that Fasola is the com­mon name used by the local elders for this olive tree that gives medium-large dou­ble-apti­tude (it can be used for olive oil and table olives) fruits.

DNA analy­sis will give us fur­ther, reli­able infor­ma­tion about this plant, which deals very well with frosts, winds and drought,” Pepe added.

Plants of Casaliva, wide­spread in the banks of Lake Garda, are flanked by Miniol, Negrel, and Gargnan at La Zadruga, man­aged by Sergio Cozzaglio, which dis­cov­ered a new vari­ety a few years ago.

We momen­tar­ily called it Villa Romana since the first plants were found near the remains of a Roman Villa, and it is now wait­ing for an offi­cial denom­i­na­tion,” he said.

From about 100 olive trees, these groves have pro­duced a very good extra vir­gin olive oil, medium fruity with hints of almond, arti­choke, grass and high polyphe­no­lic con­tent.

It has all the poten­tial to be devel­oped,” Cozzaglio said. According to the analy­sis car­ried out by the National Research Council’s Institute of Biosciences and Bioresources of Perugia, its DNA is not yet known, as it is a unique vari­ety.”

Cozzaglio added that the new­found Villa Romana has a con­stant pro­duc­tion and with­stands low and high tem­per­a­tures. It has an aver­age resis­tance to anthrac­nose and olive knot, and with the excep­tion of the pea­cock eye, it stands up well to all the other dis­eases.


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