New Arbequina plantings in Chilecito, Argentina

“When con­sumers think of Malbec, only one coun­try comes to mind: Argentina,” Eric Asimov, the reputed wine critic from the New York Times, once said. To that point, Argentina’s Malbec has become ubiq­ui­tous over the past two decades.

Much of this growth has hap­pened since the early 2000s when sig­nif­i­cant invest­ment and effort went into improv­ing the French vari­ety, from grow­ing the vines higher up in the Andean foothills to mea­sur­ing exactly how much light each vine is receiv­ing.

Since 2000, Malbec pro­duc­tion has increased by 163 per­cent in Argentina, allow­ing the undis­puted king of Argentine wine to become a house­hold name around the world.

They want the same as us, that the olive oil is rec­og­nized for its qual­ity.- Maria Ravida, Argentine olive oil con­sul­tant

And olive oil pro­duc­ers from across the world’s fifth largest wine maker have taken note. Many, rang­ing from small-scale fam­ily pro­duc­ers to the largest olive oil pro­duc­tion com­pany in Latin America, have been look­ing at the Malbec suc­cess story and believe they can do the same with extra vir­gin olive oil.

“I think extra vir­gin olive oil will go that way,” Frankie Gobbee, the co-founder and direc­tor of the Argentina Olive Group (AOG), told the pub­lisher of Olive Oil Times, Curtis Cord in a doc­u­men­tary video that debuted today.


 

The coun­try has all of the nec­es­sary attrib­utes to repeat Malbec’s mete­oric rise with olive oil: the appro­pri­ate cli­mate, which includes hot days and cool nights; large aquifers; and deter­mi­na­tion among both small- and large-scale pro­duc­ers.

See more: Olive Oil Production News

The 2018/​19 har­vest was an off-year in Argentina, which saw the coun­try pro­duce just 20,000 tons of olive oil, accord­ing to pre­lim­i­nary esti­mates from the International Olive Council.

However, pro­duc­tion has been trend­ing upward for the past decade. In the pre­vi­ous cam­paign, Argentina pro­duced a record 43,500 tons of olive oil. Exports also hit a record high that year of 36,500 tons, which made Argentina the sixth largest olive oil exporter.

Gobbee and oth­ers expect that pro­duc­tion and exports will con­tinue to trend upward. According to sta­tis­tics from the International Trade Center, the value of vir­gin and extra vir­gin exports from Argentina has climbed steadily since 2014.

Frankie Gobbee

Part of what will con­tinue to spur this upward trend is increased invest­ment, both in olive tree plan­ta­tions as well as sup­port­ing infra­struc­ture.

Earlier this year, the agri­cul­tural com­pany Solfut announced that it would begin build­ing the largest olive oil pro­duc­tion and stor­age plant in Latin America. Once com­pleted, the plant will boast mod­ern equip­ment and a stor­age capac­ity of 4,000 tons, much of which will be exported to Brazil.

More olive tree cul­ti­va­tion is occur­ring as well, with AOG plant­ing more than 300,000 Arbequina trees, which will start to pro­duce olives for olive oil in three years.

Gobbee said that these olives from La Rioja will be the def­i­n­i­tion of extra vir­gin as the trees were planted right on the out­skirts of Argentina’s high desert, where noth­ing else had pre­vi­ously been farmed.

“Before we planted here, this was a desert, so this is really extra vir­gin,” Gobbee said. “The land was vir­gin and we planted this area with super high den­sity, new genetic plants with good pro­duc­tion. We will make this into extra vir­gin olive oil for the world.”

Along with increas­ing the num­ber of acres that are cov­ered in olive trees and improv­ing the exist­ing infra­struc­ture, olive grow­ers will also need to carry out some fun­da­men­tal reforms in order to recre­ate the Malbec rev­o­lu­tion.

A recent study car­ried out by the National Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA) found that 60 per­cent of the olive groves in the province of San Juan are not in the opti­mal places after a series of gov­ern­ment tax incen­tives in the 1980s and 1990s that led to a dra­matic expan­sion of olive plan­ta­tions in the province.

As vint­ners did with Malbec 20 years ago, olive grow­ers are begin­ning to apply the sci­en­tific method to deter­mine where olives grow best in the west­ern provinces.

“The olives here are grow­ing in a con­ti­nen­tal cli­mate,” Facundo Vita, who over­sees activ­i­ties related to olives at INTA, told Cord. “What we do is, first, to study the behav­ior of the tem­per­a­ture in this val­ley… We defined some places where you can grow the olives and places where you can­not grow the olives.”

Facundo Vita

Fortunately for olive grow­ers, the study deter­mined that the amount of land that is appro­pri­ate for olive grow­ing in the province exceeds the num­ber of acres that are cur­rently planted. In another strik­ing sim­i­lar­ity with Malbec, mov­ing the olive trees far­ther up the foothills seems to be the answer.

“Here we are at 1,100 meters (3,600 feet),” Daniel Minchiotti, of Finca Vista Larga in La Rioja, explained. “We have very good con­di­tions, mainly the alter­na­tion of the ther­mal ampli­tude. This effect makes the crop and the phys­i­o­log­i­cal processes of the plant very effi­cient. The plant can breathe well and oxy­genate and not per­spire so much at night.”

Growing higher qual­ity olives is the first step in achiev­ing bet­ter qual­ity olive oil, which every­one in the sec­tor agrees will help make Argentina’s extra vir­gin olive oil stand out, as grow­ing higher qual­ity grapes did with Malbec.

At Trapiche, the fifth largest wine brand in the world, olive trees grow adja­cent to Malbec vines. Olive oil adds very lit­tle to the bot­tom line of the 136-year-old win­ery, but nonethe­less, the com­pany is com­mit­ted to qual­ity.

“We are grow­ing in olive oil. This year we will pro­duce 5,000 liters,” Magdalena Roge, Trapiche’s agron­o­mist, told Cord. “It’s a small prod­uct because we are a win­ery so we are not very ambi­tious, but we wanted to have a small quan­tity and very good qual­ity.”

Magdalena Roge

Josefina Iglesias, an enol­o­gist at Trapiche, empha­sized that sim­i­larly to the process with Malbec as the sci­ence behind olive oil pro­duc­tion has improved and is con­tin­u­ing to do so.

“It is impor­tant to com­mu­ni­cate that it is very dif­fer­ent, the way we made oil years ago and what we have now,” she said. “Now we have more stud­ies, we train more. That is our work today here.”

On top of improv­ing qual­ity, other reforms will also need to be made, some of which may be dif­fi­cult with­out the sup­port of the fed­eral and local gov­ern­ments, both of which many olive oil pro­duc­ers per­ceive as lack­ing.

In Mendoza, increased infra­struc­ture fund­ing from the gov­ern­ment has led to older olive groves bring uprooted and replaced with new apart­ment blocks.

“I am tremen­dously con­cerned with what is hap­pen­ing in Mendoza with the felling of the olive trees,” Gabriel Guardia, the gen­eral man­ager of Olivicola Laur, an award-win­ning olive oil pro­ducer in Mendoza, told Olive Oil Times. “Olive trees of 80 to 100 years are grad­u­ally lost due to an eco­nomic equa­tion that does not favor the pro­ducer.”

Gabriel Guardia (center) with Esteban Santipolio (right) and Curtis Cord

A feel­ing that the government’s eco­nomic equa­tion does not help olive grow­ers is wide­spread. Last year, energy price hikes in west­ern Argentina led to an out­cry from pro­duc­ers who wor­ried that expenses would soon exceed rev­enues.

Emergency taxes on olive oil exports, which were insti­tuted by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment last September in order to meet the require­ments of an International Monetary Fund bailout, also dam­aged pro­duc­ers’ bot­tom lines.

The Argentine gov­ern­ment was fun­da­men­tal in assist­ing Malbec’s mete­oric rise and has been widely crit­i­cized in the olive oil sec­tor for not play­ing a sim­i­lar role.

“To prove that it is very good oil, we have to do a lot of adver­tis­ing. Despite hav­ing the best olive oil in the world,” said Daniel Dates, who has been work­ing with olive oil in San Juan for 45 years. “In real­ity, the gov­ern­ment does not sup­port us as it should.”

If Argentina’s extra vir­gin olive oil is to mimic the rise of its Malbec wine then pro­duc­ers, both super-inten­sive and tra­di­tional, will need to join together and find a way to work with the fed­eral and local gov­ern­ments too.

“They want the same as us,” Maria Ravida, a con­sul­tant for pro­duc­ers in San Juan and Mendoza, said of the need to col­lab­o­rate. “That the olive oil is rec­og­nized for its qual­ity.”



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