How Monovarietal Olive Oils Promote Ecological Farming, Safeguard Landscapes

Producing monovarietal extra virgin olive oil promotes endemic varieties, which require fewer phytosanitary interventions, preserve landscapes and promote biodiversity.

(Photo: Barbara Alfei)
By Ylenia Granitto
Sep. 26, 2023 14:20 UTC
(Photo: Barbara Alfei)

The pro­duc­tion of extra vir­gin olive oil from a sin­gle olive vari­ety, has increased sig­nif­i­cantly in the last few decades.

Globally, grow­ers’ ever-greater com­mit­ment to qual­ity goes hand in hand with the search for new fla­vors to present to con­sumers.

When a vari­ety is well adapted and devel­ops smoothly in a spe­cific envi­ron­ment, we have to inter­vene less with chem­i­cal treat­ments, which helps us to respect… sus­tain­abil­ity cri­te­ria.- Barbara Alfei, cura­tor, Italian mono­va­ri­etal olive oil data­base

From Coratina to Picual, Manaki to Chemlali, and Itrana to Ayvalık, the num­ber of mono­va­ri­etals sub­mit­ted by pro­duc­ers to the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition each year exceeds that of blends, which sug­gests the impor­tance of this pro­duc­tion seg­ment on the inter­na­tional mar­ket.

Monovarietal extra vir­gin olive oils allow pro­duc­ers to enhance the pecu­liar fea­tures of the oils that can be obtained from each olive vari­ety, includ­ing ana­lyt­i­cal para­me­ters such as fatty acid com­po­si­tion and polyphe­nol con­tent,” said Barbara Alfei, the offi­cial respon­si­ble for the olive sec­tor at the Marche Regional Agriculture and Fishing Agency and cura­tor of the Italian mono­va­ri­etal olive oil data­base, now in its twen­ti­eth edi­tion.

See Also:Researchers Study How Lack of Chill Hours Impacts Olive Development, Oil Quality

This aspect is impor­tant in terms of nutri­tional value and health prop­er­ties, and above all, of sen­so­r­ial char­ac­ter­is­tics,” she added.

A fur­ther key point is that pro­duc­ing mono­va­ri­etals can help to enhance the bond between the autochtho­nous olive vari­eties and their ter­ri­to­ries,” she con­tin­ued. In the coun­tries where tra­di­tional olive grow­ing is wide­spread, like Italy, most vari­eties are not spread ran­domly; each is con­nected to a spe­cific area and has a strong bond with a cer­tain envi­ron­ment, soils and cli­matic con­di­tions and land­scapes.”

Hence arises the con­cept of ter­roir’ that can be applied explic­itly to the high-qual­ity mono­va­ri­etals made from autochtho­nous vari­eties con­nected to spe­cific regions with par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics.

After two decades of work on mono­va­ri­etals, we can rea­son­ably say that the notion of ter­roir,’ as used in the wine sec­tor, under­lies the pro­duc­tion of a vari­ety in a spe­cific area, under spe­cific pedo­cli­matic con­di­tions, devel­op­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics that are unique and unre­peat­able in any other area,” Alfei said.

She spec­i­fied that in this con­text, using the term vari­ety instead of cul­ti­var is prefer­able since the lat­ter indi­cates a widely cul­ti­vated type of olive tree with­out links to a spe­cific area. In con­trast, vari­ety means a native kind related to a well-defined area.

In this sce­nario, we can take advan­tage of the ele­ment of envi­ron­men­tal com­pat­i­bil­ity,” she said. When a vari­ety is well adapted and devel­ops smoothly in a spe­cific envi­ron­ment, we have to inter­vene less with chem­i­cal treat­ments, which helps us to respect the cur­rent envi­ron­men­tal and agri­cul­tural sus­tain­abil­ity cri­te­ria.”

Indeed, this proves very use­ful in the frame­work of today’s cli­mate cri­sis, which sees an increased fre­quency of extreme weather events with often neg­a­tive effects on pro­duc­tion due to direct mete­o­ro­log­i­cal rea­sons or to the con­se­quent pest out­breaks that nec­es­sar­ily need to be treated,” Alfei added.


Alfei and a monumental olive tree during a field inspection

This sug­gests that pro­mot­ing native vari­eties can help to pro­tect tra­di­tional and his­toric olive orchards, often com­prised of cen­turies-old trees, with their char­ac­ter­is­tic land­scapes, said Alfei. Besides, cul­ti­vat­ing sev­eral vari­eties in the same area allows farm­ers to dif­fer­en­ti­ate pro­duc­tion while fos­ter­ing local bio­di­ver­sity.

A land­scape with its mon­u­men­tal trees refers to the ter­ri­to­ry’s his­tory,” she said. This implies val­ues, tra­di­tions and cus­toms that enrich the oil’s iden­tity with fur­ther com­po­nents… This is a strong point that pro­duc­ers can lever­age when pre­sent­ing their prod­ucts on the mar­ket.”

The AMAP orga­nizes the annual national olive tree prun­ing cham­pi­onship, Forbici d’Oro, mean­ing golden scis­sors,’ to safe­guard and recover tra­di­tional olive groves and land­scapes.

The ancient trees should be man­aged cor­rectly and, when nec­es­sary, restored with appro­pri­ate reform prun­ing; the own­ers of these tra­di­tional groves require skills that enable them to work effi­ciently and earn an ade­quate income. This also helps avoid the risk of land aban­don­ment.

If there is no income, the olive trees are aban­doned, which would lead to the loss of bio­di­ver­sity while impact­ing the landscape’s pro­duc­tive fab­ric,” Alfei said. We are then pro­mot­ing a vir­tu­ous path that envis­ages an under­ly­ing strat­egy and calls for pro­fes­sion­al­ism.”


Through bet­ter man­age­ment of prun­ing and har­vest­ing, besides the enhance­ment of the value of the prod­uct, which should be sold at a prof­itable price, farm­ers can earn enough rev­enue,” she added. In this way, the risk of land aban­don­ment decreases.”

These are the aims that drive the Italian mono­va­ri­etal oils data­base. Currently, detailed infor­ma­tion, includ­ing nutri­tional val­ues, health prop­er­ties and sen­sory fea­tures of 194 mono­va­ri­etals from 19 Italian regions, can be found in its data­base of 4,087 sam­ples ana­lyzed over 20 years.

We have acquired a stag­ger­ing amount of data and expe­ri­ences which have been col­lected in the data­base that can be used for free by both pro­fes­sion­als and enthu­si­asts,” Alfei said.

This gath­er­ing of infor­ma­tion has the scope of a vast research project and is the fruit of a team effort: the pro­duc­ers send the mono­va­ri­etals; the AMAP panel car­ries out the sen­so­r­ial char­ac­ter­i­za­tion; the AMAP agro-chem­i­cal cen­ter con­ducts the analy­ses; Massimiliano Magli at the National Research Council of Bologna takes care of the sta­tis­ti­cal pro­cess­ing; and Giorgio Pannelli is in charge of the tech­ni­cal-sci­en­tific area,” she added.

The data­base also con­tains a sub­di­vi­sion of the sen­sory pro­files of all the mono­va­ri­etals, divided into six sen­so­r­ial typolo­gies.

Through a clus­ter analy­sis, we have sim­pli­fied this incred­i­bly rich world of aro­mas and fla­vors to help con­sumers and chefs eas­ily choose the oils to pair with their dishes,” Alfei said.

One of the most inter­est­ing insights that emerged from the data­base is the impact that cli­mate change is hav­ing on some organolep­tic fea­tures. In par­tic­u­lar, it was noted that increas­ingly hot and dry sea­sons in cer­tain areas cor­re­spond to a steady decrease in oleic acid in some vari­eties.

While the aro­mas are linked to the geno­type and remain unvar­ied over the years, the fatty acids depend also on envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors,” Alfei said. We noted a decline of oleic acid in some vari­eties in cer­tain areas in cor­re­spon­dence of very hot and dry sea­sons.”


Endemic olive varieties may be part of olive growers’ solutions to mitigating the impacts of climate change. (Photo: Alfei)

Understanding how these para­me­ters are chang­ing or can change due to the effects of cli­mate change is impor­tant since it can help us act in time to develop effec­tive solu­tions,” she added.

Every year, pro­duc­ers from every part of Italy sub­mit new vari­eties cor­re­spond­ing to new geno­types to the data­base.

Alfei’s team recently found two new geno­types in the Marche region and is now work­ing to obtain recog­ni­tion by the respon­si­ble author­i­ties and reg­is­tra­tion in the offi­cial records, includ­ing the regional bio­di­ver­sity cat­a­log and the national reg­is­ter of fruit plant vari­eties kept by the Italian Agriculture Ministry.

Numerous vari­eties have been neglected in the past, often because the fruit was too small or too resis­tant to detach or had a low oil yield,” Alfei said.

In the cur­rent con­text, the evo­lu­tion of the olive oil sec­tor encour­ages pro­duc­ers to redis­cover such autochtho­nous vari­eties, which com­bine busi­ness with plea­sure, since, as men­tioned before, they may pro­vide a great response to the chal­lenges posed by cli­mate change and also impart new fla­vors that con­sumers can enjoy,” she con­cluded.

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