If you’re a fan of great olive oil — particularly of oils from Tuscany and Umbria — you’d better get ready to start dipping into your wallet. That stuff’s going to get expensive.
As a result of what the Italian newspaper La Repubblica is calling “The Black Year of Italian Olive Oil,” the olive harvest through much of Italy has been devastated — down 35% from last year.
And though the rest of Europe hasn’t been hit quite that hard, production in most countries is forecast to be far below last year’s.
One group projects Spain’s output to be half of last year’s record harvest, and the overall world output may fall 20%, according to industry researcher Oil World.
Even in California, the rapidly growing olive oil industry has been slowed by drought.
As a result, shoppers are going to have to pay more for good olive oil than they have in the past — when they can find it. And they’re going to have to be even more careful than usual about reading labels to be sure they’re getting the real thing.
There are multiple causes for the disastrous fall.
In Italy, the weather was horrible — and at all the most crucial points. When the trees were turning flowers to fruit in the spring, freezing weather suddenly turned scorching, causing the trees to drop olives. Summer was hot and humid, leading to all sorts of problems. Then in mid-September, there there was a major hail storm, knocking much of the fruit that remained onto the ground.
Compounding the problems with the weather was a troublesome infestation of a fruit fly spreading a disease known as “olive tree leprosy.”
“For olive oil producers, 2014 is the year they wish had never happened,” says Rolando Beramendi, who imports fine Italian oils and other food products through his company Manicaretti.
“The weather was so strange … terrible hailstorms, unusual wet weather,” he says. As a result, one of his top producers — Tenuta di Capezzana in Tuscany — isn’t going to make any oil at all.
“They ran the press one day and then just said the quality was so bad that they just turned it off,” Beramendi says.
Pamela Sheldon Johns, who runs a popular bed and breakfast in Tuscany where oil is made, wrote on her Facebook page: “No olive harvest this year. No oil.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard that other artisanal producers here in southern Tuscany weren’t picking so I went to check every one of our 800 trees. All bad. Olives on the ground, others still on the tree but withered. Not even a few olives to make an oil for our own use.
“We can blame the weather.... No winter temps that killed off pests. No summer, just rain. And we can blame the Bactrocera oleae, a fly that took advantage of the bad weather and proliferated to an astounding degree in a large area of central Italy."
Making matters even worse in Italy, says olive oil expert Tom Mueller, author of “Extra-Virginity,” are government actions.
“Aside from the weather and fly, this low harvest is also an expression of the rapidly deteriorating olive oil industry in Italy, where more and more oil is imported, and less and less is made from Italian trees,” he wrote in an email.
“[The] lack of long-term strategic planning on a national and regional level, terrible (often fraudulent) use of EU subsidies not to modernize groves and mills, as the subsidies were designed to do, but to grease palms,” are among the reasons he cites.
Mueller warns that this shortage may well lead to even more of the kinds of olive oil fraud he describes in his book — cheaper oils from other countries being imported and sold as fine Italian, lesser grades being labeled extra-virgin, even the addition of vegetable oils.
Indeed, Olive Oil Times has already reported a 45% increase in imports of oils into Italy.
Given all of this, what’s an olive oil lover to do?
Beramendi says shopping carefully can hedge the odds in your favor. “If anything, this is going to be the year when we realize who are the honest producers and who are cheating,” he says. “Capezzana for example turned off the machine, you won’t find any.”
Pay attention to the label, he says. A wrinkle in Italian oil labeling laws allows producers to label their products by where they are bottled, not necessarily where they are grown. Therefore, a company in Tuscany that imports Algerian oil can sell it as Tuscan oil.
An exception, Beramendi says, is bottles labeled “produced and bottled by,” which have to have been grown by the estate that’s selling them. Even better are bottles that are marked with the harvest date.
Mueller, whose book uncovers all manner of bad business in olive oil, is more pessimistic.
“Given the current lack of transparency in labeling, I’m afraid there are no good answers for how consumers can shop smart,” he wrote.
“Certainly, anything claiming to be Italian oil that costs below, say, $12 per liter should be avoided, as it virtually can’t be Italian from this year’s harvest and cost that little (prices for 100% Italian extra virgin olive oil have skyrocketed as this bad harvest has emerged). Anything cheaper virtually has to be – wholly or in part – last year’s oil, or another country’s oil, or some other vegetable oil. Be doubly suspicious of anything that claims to come from Tuscany, Umbria or another of the harder-hit regions.”
He advises trying Greek oils, as they were relatively unaffected.
“This is the reality of extra virgin olive oil,” he wrote. “Some years the harvest just isn’t good, even in the best production areas in the world, and oil is scarce or of poor quality. Just as some vintages of a given wine region are so-so, some excellent.
“People need to understand that this is a fresh agricultural crop, a fresh-squeezed fruit juice, and not an industrially-produced liquid fat.”
Mueller says that although California oil has made headway, he hesitates to give a blanket recommendation for them as an alternative, because "frankly, I hear about a lot of games being played there too, with labels and quality alike."