This time Stefano, who has emerged from the snowy wastes, takes the stand.
Lets begin by discarding the 2 Euro/liter dreck that we can find on the shelves in supermarkets, and say that if one works in the field (and Stefano does), finding excellent extravirgin oils is not difficult.
Quite the contrary, Italy is full of them. Also, despite what mass communication would have us believe, quality is completely independent of geography, and this means it's simply untrue that the oils of some regions are great while those of others are bad. Quality is quality everywhere, and in the case of oil it derives from a frightening number of variables, none of which are secondary: climate, terrain, the surroundings, exposure, cultivation techniques, treatments, pruning, cultivars used, harvesting timing and technique, pressing timing and technique, and storage of the pressed oil.
What is more difficult to find is an extravirgin oil that is of excellent quality, made in volumes that aren't Lilliputian, and reasonably priced, the latter being the primary force behind brand loyalty.
Day before yesterday I had the good fortune to stumble across oil of just this kind in a trip to Florence, to a presentation of the oils made by the Gaudenzi family in Trevi.
It's a family-run operation, which has, in its 60 years of experience, won many awards, and brought 4 oils pressed in the fall of 2011: Gaudenzi (the basic oil; 80% Moraiolo with Frantoio and Leccino); Quinta Luna (Frantoio, Moraiolo and Leccino, some of which is also bottled as DOP Umbria - Colli Assisi e Spoleto), Chiuse di Sant'Arcangelo (Moraiolo), and 6 Novembre (a "field blend," made by selecting the groves that produced the best olives each year). Let's begin by saying they're all excellent (my notes follow), and my personal preference is for Quinta Luna.
But this isn't the most interesting thing -- strange to say -- about this press. It is instead the philosophy the family has chosen (successfully, it would seem) to follow: a closed cycle that includes field work, pressing, sales, and promotion, which has allowed them to present a series of extremely good oils, all sold directly at prices that are absolutely competitive: The 0.75 liter bottle of the Gaudenzi basic oil sells for 8 Euros and the Quinta Luna for 10, while the half-liter bottles of the Chiuse and 6 Novembre selections sell for 9. Dirt cheap for oils of this quality. Also considering that it's a large operation, by Italian standards: 23 hectares (about 60 acres) of proprietary olive groves all organically farmed, 25,000 olive trees, and more than 300 quintals of oil produced yearly, following a harvest that begins at the end of September and rarely extends past the end of November.
"From an agronomic standpoint," says Francesco, son of Vittorio, who founded the company, "we took three major steps: first, an inventory of all of our trees to classify them by cultivar; second, planning the harvest on the basis of the cultivars, taking into account the different ripening periods of the various cultivars; third, the adoption of a double-cycle pruning system consisting of deep pruning every 5-6 years and yearly trimmings, which has allowed us to almost completely overcome the alternating full and lean harvests olive groves are known for, and thus produce consistent volumes from year to year."
A team of 10 carefully selected people picks with the aid of agevolatori (not the tree shakers one occasionally sees in video clips); they pick by cultivar when the cultivars reach the optimal stage of ripeness, pressing the oils individually, and only later blend the oils from the different cultivars (this blending is called oleaggio, an oil blend, as opposed to the much more common, but less professional olivaggio, or blending of the different cultivars at pressing, which results in an oil from olives that are not all at the optimal stage of ripeness) to make the final oils.
The oils I tasted:
- Gaudenzi Olio Extravergine Di Oliva: Nice, very well balanced nose, with evident but not overly aggressive fruit, fresh and almondy accents, hints of balsam. On the palate its entry is elegant, gradually developing pleasant bitter accents that present with harmony and delicacy, and slightest peppery spice. Very good.
- Quinta Luna: The nose is more powerful that the first, and ample and ethereal, almost penetrating, with greenish herbal accents, nice intensity of fruit, and excellent definition. On the palate balsamic accents are evident, while bitterness emerges strongly, balanced by sweetish notes. It's very long, with clearly evident artichoke stalks that also carry into an elegant finish. Superb.
- Chiuse di Sant'Arcangelo: The nose opens with delicate, but very clear tomato notes, in part green and in part dried; the fruit is full but delicate, giving way to freshly peeled almonds. On the palate it's intense from the outset, full, and fairly bitter, revealing strong flavors that fade into a more delicate peppery finish with delightful artichoke accents. Excellent.
- 6 Novembre: The nose is quite delicate, fresh, and just barely pungent, bringing to mind rosemary and evergreens. On the palate it's quite elegant, full bodied but not aggressive, with bittersweet artichokes predominating, and a very savory finish with bitterness that emerges at the very end. Excellent.
Pairings? I'm against suggesting them. Try, and enjoy coming up with the best. Or let the producer advise you: they do this too.
For More Information, The Gaudenzi Family's Site
Published Simultaneously by IGP, I Giovani Promettenti.