Olive Oil Guide

In early November Italy harvests its first batch of olives to be crushed for olive oil.  Throughout the country—from Lombardy to Sicily—the raccolta, or harvest, is eagerly anticipated.  Here in the U.S., gourmands line up for the first of the new season’s arrivals.  It’s the early harvest olives that produce the richest and most flavorful extra-virgin olive oils and, unlike wine, olive oil is at its best when fresh.  While Italy has a long history of olive oil production, with countless producers of fine oil, the recently instituted DOP classification provides a benchmark for excellence.  To earn DOP status, producers must follow strict production regulations that help guarantee the quality of the oil.  No DODP oil can have acidity higher than 0.8 percent, for instance, and olives can’t be stored for more than three days after harvest.  There is a broad spectrum of DOP oils from almost every region of Italy, and each DOP has its own unique history.

There are dozen of olive varieties grown across Italy with a broad range of characteristics. In the north, the taggiasca olive produces light, fine oils with a delicate almond flavor, while stronger, fruitier oils are pressed from cassaliva, leccino and moraiolo olives. In central Italy the frantoio and moraiolo olives are common, producing spicy and herbaceous oils. And in the south, where the majority of olives are grown, the gentile di Chieti can be found in Abruzzo, the cima di bitonto in Puglia, the ottobractica in Calabria and the nocellara in Sicily, most of which produce golden yellow oils with strong flavors and a nutty aftertaste.

Here, with a background and history of their region of origin, we describe all the DOP oils of Italy. Note: In regions with only one DOP and a shared name, we repeat the heading before the descriptions.

Abutting the Adriatic, Abruzzo produces around 260,000 tons of extra virgin olive oil from its three DOP regions. Olive groves share the region’s mountainous slopes with vineyards, and the groves’ bounty has been a central part of the local cuisine for thousands of years.

Aprutino Pescarese
Aprutino Pescarese is a blend of dritta, leccino and toccolana olives. The toccolana olives come from Tocco da Casauria and give high yield and rustic flavor. This extra-virgin oil is lower in acidity, with a maximum allowed acidity of 0.6 percent.

Colline Teatine
The remains of an ancient oil mill in this area date back to the second century. Emigrants from Vasto and throughout Abruzzo, who settled in New York, helped to familiarize the U.S. with olive oil. Produced in the province of Chieti from the gentile di Chieti olive, this oil has low acidity with medium green color and a velvety, round finish.

Pretuziano delle Colline Teramane
At least 75 percent leccino, frantoio and dritta olives, this oil is aggressive and fragrant. In the first century B.C., Cato wrote about how shepherds in the region delivered Praetuttian olive oil to the Tyrrhenian Sea using the ancient Salarian highway. 

The sturdy olive trees that hug the rugged, sun-drenched cliffs of Calabria produce a full flavored oil that complements the local spicy cuisine, and is often infused with herbs or used to preserve peperoncini.

Alto Crotonese
Oil production can be traced to the Byzantine period when Basilian monks settled in the region and improved olive cultivation. At least 70 percent carolea olives, this is a lighter Calabrian oil, suited for drizzling over fish or seasoning greens.

Olives were introduced to the region by the ancient Greeks. Bruzio’s DOP designation is limited to the province of Cosenza. It has a light green color with hints of yellow.

Made from at least 90 percent carolea olives, olive production here is limited for quality and the harvesting season is heavily regulated. The acidity is restricted to 0.5 percent, giving it a smooth, full flavor.

Olive groves thrive in the volcanic soil of the hills surrounding Naples, and the coastal plains have garnered DOP status for local San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala, making Campania a vibrant culinary region that produces unique olive oil with a well rounded minerality derived from the volcanic soil.

Cilento oil is produced from pisciottano, the oldest olive varietal, grown in sixty-two communes in southern Salerno, all of which are within the Parco Nazionale del Cilento. Oil from here is distinctively aromatic with a slightly bitter finish.

Colline Salernitane
In addition to the indigenous varieties rotondella and carpellese, olive farmers have planted frantoio and leccino trees here. While many groves are harvested mechanically, oil production is limited to 20 percent of the harvested weight, which guarantees a well-balanced and consistent oil. 

Penisola Sorrentina
In ancient times, pilgrims came to the temple of Minerva on the Sorrento Peninsula bearing gifts of olive oil, so olive trees were planted there to meet their needs. These orchards thrive in the volcanic soil of the steeply terraced slopes, producing distinctive oil that is redolent of fresh grass, green tomatoes and artichoke. Arguably the cradle of Italian cuisine, the region straddles the fertile Po river valley all the way to the Adriatic coast. These complex and dense olive oils, particularly those from Colline di Romagna, complement the rich, savory food of the region.

Arguably the cradle of Italian cuisine, the region straddles the fertile Po river valley all the way to the Adriatic coast.  These complex and dense olive oils, particularly those from Colline di Romagna, complement the rich, savory food of the region.

Brisighella DOP oil must come from 90 percent nostrana di brisighella olives. The oil has a low acidity and an emerald green color with hints of gold.

Olive oil has always played an important economic role in this area. In the 13th century, local lords in the region leased land to farmers in exchange for half the year’s crop of olives. Even the worth of a donkey was measured in olive oil, which explains the high quality and value of this oil today. 

Colline di Romagna
The microclimate of this region contributes to its oil’s flavor profile and distinctive fruitiness. Vineyards and olive trees are the only major crops that are harvested along the stretch of steep slopes that run from Rimini, on the Adriatic coast, inland to Forlì-Cesena.

friuli-venezia giulia
Perhaps more renowned for the white wine tocai, Friuli-Venezia Giulia has only one DOP-designated growing region which, while it originally dates to pre-Roman times, fell into almost total obscurity after a devastating frost wiped out the crops in 1929.

The name Tergeste refers to the original colony founded by Emperor Augustus on the site of what’s now Trieste. Nearly wiped out in 1929, there’s again a vibrant olive oil trade, with the majority of groves in the San Dorligo area, made up mainly of the bianchera-belica olive, which is prized for its low acidity and high antioxidant content.

Anchored by Rome, this region’s history is rooted in a tradition in which the production of olive oil has played a central role for thousands of years. Some of Europe’s oldest productive olive trees are still growing in this region. The age of these trees, and the depth of their roots, imparts a deep color to the oil and noticeable minerality on the palate. 

DOP status is granted only to extra-virgin oils that are made from the caninese, leccino, pendolino, maurino and frantoio olives, either individually or blended. Its acidity cannot exceed 0.5 percent. 

Sabina extra-virgin olive oil is made from 75 percent of one or more of the varieties carboncella, leccino, raja, frantoio, moraiolo, olivastrone, salvaiana, olivago and rosciola. This DOP boasts the oldest olive tree in Europe. It’s trunk measures 7 meters in diameter. Visitors to the region can study the history of olive oil production at the Museo dell’Olio della Sabina.

The towns in this area were some of the first to perfect the production of clay vessels for shipping and storing olive oil, making it a central hub of the early olive oil trade route. 

During the Middle Ages, Benedictine monks increased arable land in this hilly region by levelling terraces behind stone walls, or maxéi. The Benedictine monks are also to thank for the taggiasca olive tree, which they cultivated over the years through careful selection and grafting.

Riviera Ligure
This is a broad growing area, encompassing all of Liguria. The taggiasca tree produces a unique olive and imparts Ligurian olive oil with a full and well-rounded flavor, and a deep color. 

Traditionally in this northernmost DOP, butter was often used in cooking more than olive oil. As the quality and availability of the oil improves, it’s becoming more prevalent in Lombardian kitchens. The cooler climate and shorter growing season produce a lighter bodied, more delicate olive oil. 

Archeological remains of an oil mill here date to Roman times. Major olive varieties include casaliva, frantoio, leccino and pendolino, which produce a medium bodied oil with herbal notes and an almond finish.

Laghi Lombardy
This DOP oil fits in with a long regional culinary tradition. Acidity is limited to 0.55 percent and the oil pairs well with local produce.

One of the smallest regions in Italy, Molise sits at a culinary crossroads, sharing the southern influences from Campania, and the northern palate of Abruzzo. The main growing region, inland from the Adriatic, has high plateaus and rich, verdant farmland. Eighteenth century author Giovani Presta, an expert on olive growing and oil production, wrote that the region’s olive oil was “reserved for the most delicate, fussiest and wealthiest of palates.” Robust, it pairs well with the local DOP salami, salamini italiani alla cacciatora.

The heel of the boot is the nation’s largest producer of olive oil and wine. With the introduction of DOP regulations, quality has been added to quantity. Given the volume of olive oil produced here, and the variety of the terrain, there is a broad spectrum of flavors among Puglian olive oil. 

Colline di Brindisi
Colline di Brindisi oil is made from at least 70 percent ogliarolo olives, with the balance made up of cellina di nardó, coratina, frantoio, leccino and picholine olives. Oil from this region ranges from dark green to a lighter yellow, with a sweet fruitiness on the plate.

The Dauno DOP olive oils are differentiated between the four mountainous growing regions within Foggia: Alto Tavoliere, Basso Tavoliere, Gargano and sub-Appennino, each with its own subtle characteristics but generally aromatic and well rounded, some with notes of artichoke or tomato.

Terra di Bari
Cultivated olive trees have been a part of the region for 5,000 years and the production of olive oil was encouraged by religious orders who settled here in the Middle Ages. Sweeter in flavor with clear color and notes of almonds, it pairs well with grilled meats.

Terra d’Otranto
Another ancient growing region, the Messapi tribe cultivated olives here as early as 1,000 B.C. These oils tend to have a darker green color with an aroma of fresh herbs. 

Terra Tarentine
This area became famous throughout the Hellenic world for its olive-based ointments. Now it produces a bright, fruity oil with a slightly bitter and spicy aftertaste, and green shades with gold undertones.

Under Spanish rule in the 14th and 15th centuries, Sardinian olive cultivation was greatly enhanced. Olive farmers had to plant at least 10 new trees per year, and any farmer who owned more than 500 olive trees had to build his own oil mill. Sardinian oil can be intense golden yellow with green hues, and scents of apple and Mediterranean flowers. The palate is soft and fluid, balanced by bitter notes of artichoke and a hot, peppery finish.

Sicily has a long history of olive cultivation that dates back to the Phoenicians, who also introduced carob and almond trees to the island. For centuries, Greeks and Phoenicians traded the prized Sicilian olive oil and transported it throughout the Mediterranean in special amphorae.

Monte Etna
Grown in the volcanic soil on the slopes of Mount Etna, olives in this region draw minerality from the soil and produce an oil with a fruity nose and clean palate, with a light, spicy and bitter finish, and a yellow-gold color. 

Monte Iblei
There are ancient records in this region of commercial olive trade agreements called pandette. The temperature on the slopes of Mount Iblei fluctuates dramatically between day and night, intensifying the flavor of this oil. It tends to be dark green in color with a rich fruity flavor that makes it very suitable as a table oil. 

Val di Mazara
One of the largest growing regions in Sicily, the microclimate here is home to a bounty of crops, and the olive oil produced here picks up notes of neighboring artichoke, nuts and Mediterranean fruits that flourish here, resulting in an aromatic and fresh oil.

This typically rich olive oil is a central ingredient in the local version of caponata.

Val del Belice
With its particularly low acidity and delicate floral notes, this olive oil is perfect for dressing fresh greens and herbs. 

Valli Trapanesi
A low acidity oil that nonetheless has a firm palate with an aggressive bitterness. Production is divided between Valle del Belice and Valle di Erice, known as the Two Valleys.

With a long history of renowned food and wine, Tuscan olive oils, the majority of which come from the sun-drenched central hills, tend to be a rich green with a full and complex aroma.

Chianti Classico
Chianti Classico extra-virgin olive oil has some of the strictest regulations. Acidity can’t exceed 0.5 percent and the fruit has to be picked by hand. Even the temperature of the crushed olives is regu ated. This oversight results in distinctive flavors that can be overpowered by cooking, so Chianti oil is best suited for dressing salads or seasoning raw or cooked vegetables, soups and pastas. 

Local records show that quality over quantity for the production of olive oil in this province has been practiced for centuries. A document from 1241 lists restrictions on farmers’ production. To this day, exceptional olive oil is produced here, noted for its rich, rounded flavors. 

Terre di Siena
This DOP limits the production of olives per tree. A single tree cannot exceed 66 pounds, or 10,688 pounds per acre. Only ripe olives are picked and, to avoid bruising, they can’t be transported in sacks or bales. These restrictions and the quality of the olives result in a piquant and bright oil.

Thanks to the climate of Umbria, olives here are able to mature at a gradual rate, resulting in olives with low acidity. The quality is further enhanced because olives are mostly grown on hillsides, which requires hand cultivation and keeps the fruit from getting bruised before reaching the press. Umbrian olive oil tends to have a leafy aroma with a strong fruit flavor that finishes with a bite.

There are three sub-denominations with their own region and olive varieties within the Veneto DOP: Veneto del Grappa, Veneto Valpolicella and Veneto Euganei e Berici. As a result, there are variations between the the olive oils, but generally the oil from this region tends to have an intense, fruity flavor with a rich, golden color.