How good is Australian olive oil?

Sui Tham at her Olive oil grove, Cape Schanck Olive Estate which has won gold and best-in-class medals at this year’s New York International Olive Oil Competition. Photo: Joe Armao.

By Peter Barrett

When most people think of olive oil they see ancient, romantic groves and undulating hills in exotic, far-flung Mediterranean locales such as Spain, Italy and Greece. But since Australia’s recent strong showing at the New York International Olive Oil Competition, that vision should really include the more parochial delights of Mildura, the Mornington Peninsula and Rutherglen.

Australian olive oils took out four of the premier competition’s 17 best-in-class awards, second only to Italy, which notched up six best-in-class wins.

“Australia didn’t just enter the olive oil trade,” pronounced the awards website, “they re-invented it and sent shockwaves through the industry. Determined to produce olive oil that is as fresh and nutritious as possible, Australian producers craft some of the most winning brands in the world, while calling out low-quality rivals.”

So, what exactly are we doing right? Cobram Estate, which won a best-in-class, two gold medals and a silver, is Australia’s largest olive oil producer with 2.5 million trees across Victoria’s Murray Valley. The company’s CEO, Rob McGavin, says it’s partly to do with our country’s clean environment, climate and comparatively high labour costs, which encourages producers to use smarter and more efficient mechanisation systems and methods.

“We’ve been reasonably determined as well, as an industry,” he says, “because we’ve had serious competition. Everyone does think olive oil comes from Europe and Italy and so I suppose we were driven to prove the doubters wrong – not in a negative way – but you really go that extra yard to ensure you produce really high quality stuff.”

Cape Schanck Olive Estate’s Sui and Stephen Tham planted their 2000 olive trees on a former cut flower farm, a decade ago. They produced their first oil in 2010, won gold last year and this year picked up best-in-class as well as another gold.

“We feel very proud that we could achieve such a prize but it’s really something for the rest of the olive oil industry to recognise, that we Australians could do just as well. No one thinks of us in terms of olive oil but this should put Australia on the map.”

Australia entered a total of 23 oils, winning four best-in-class, four gold and three silver medals, with a success rate of 48 per cent – an all-time high in the international competition’s four-year history. Compare that to Greece, which entered 180 oils and picked up 20 awards, a success rate of just 11 per cent.

Other best-in-class Australian oils included Mornington Peninsula’s L’Uliveto Verde: The Green Olive Grove and Rutherglen’s Gooramadda Olive King Kalamata. A gold medal also went to Alto Olives, from the Southern Tablelands of NSW.

New York International Olive Oil Competition president, Curtis Cord, says the international reputation of New World producers such as Australia has grown enormously over the past few years. “Led by the quality, innovations and global expansion of Cobram Estate, Australian olive oils have arrived on the world stage and are garnering critical acclaim.”

To see the full New York International Olive Oil Competition results see  bestoliveoils.com/statistics.

This story was originally published in The Age on 7 May, 2016. Click here to read an online version.