It can’t be easy when your next door neighbour is so, well, big. In olive oil terms, Spain is the undisputed king of volumes. One Spanish region alone, Jaén, is estimated to produce around 20% of the entire world’s olive oil. Holed up next to this immense olive oil machine, Portugal can easily go unnoticed. And, unfortunately it does. Pretty much completely ignored by specialist merchants and supermarkets alike, Portugal’s output is pretty hard to find outside its borders. This is a huge shame because for some years now the country has been producing both more and better oils.
There are really four main oil-producing regions in Portugal, all of which are set back from the coastline in the interior and run, roughly, from the north of the country down to the south. For such a small territory, there is a lovely variety of olives that are still widely cultivated and producers are really upping their game in terms of quality and experimenting with both blends and monovarietal oils.
By far the most significant region in terms of production volumes is the Alentejo. Stretching from just above the Algarve in the south right up to the centre of Portugal, the Alentejo produces around two thirds of all of Portugal’s oil. It’s easy to see why. Plains and gentle hills along with the warm, dry climate – it gets the most hours of sunshine in Portugal – make this fertile territory for olive trees. The most widely planted varietal here is the galega which tends to give quite mild, sweet oils that have quite a lot of fruit but lack any great pungency. This is also the backbone of the industrially-produced oil that makes up most of the region’s output. However, there are also genuinely excellent farms here such as the organic producer Esporão who make some terrific monovarietals and blends (see tasting notes below) and Risca Grande, a biodynamic farm who scored 96 in Marco Oreggia’s latest Flos Olei guide.
A bit further north, in central Portugal, the Ribatejo region is less significant in terms of production, mustering only 6% of the country’s output. Here, too, the galega olive dominates and currently, of all the regions, there is probably the least reason to dwell here although there are one or two interesting producers such as SAOV whose Cabeço das Nogueiras oil is a blend of galega and cobrançosa.
To the north east of the Ribatejo region and level with the city of Coimbra is Beira (divided into Beira Alta and Biera Baixa). This is where the terrain starts to get more mountainous and the olive varietals more diverse. There is of course the ubiquitous galega but also cobrancosa – which gives a very balanced medium bitter and pungent oil – and Spanish variety cornicabra. Azeite Interior are one of the region’s most interesting farms; they produce a single bottle, simply called INTERIOR and made from a blend of cornicabra, galega, cobrançosa and local varietal Bical.
As you cross the Douro river from Beira, you get to what is probably the most interesting and quality-led oil-producing region of Portugal, Trás-os-Montes and the Alto Douro. In this mountainous and isolated area of the country, there are some genuinely world-class oils, many produced by small farms who have sacrificed yield for smaller quantities and complex, interesting representations of the land. The dominant varieties here are madural, cobrançosa and verdeal which are frequently blended. Done well, they produce oils that are intensely aromatic, balancing nuts and green flavours with a lovely balance between fruit, bitterness and pungency. Two particularly good producers are Quinta do Romeu who produce a single bottle in limited quantities simply called Romeu and progressive local co-op Cooperativa de Olivicultores de Valpaços who make a great value local blend under the name Rosmaninho. Tasting notes of both below and they are well worth getting your hands on if you can find any around.
Some notes on a few top Portuguese oils:
Romeu, Clemente Menéres
The Quinta do Romeu farm is an organic estate that produces fairly small quantities of oil in its own mill as well as wine and cork. Its flagship oil, simply called Romeu, is a blend made from the estate’s Cobrançosa, Verdeal Trasmontana and Madura trees to an almost equal amount. It’s well worth seeking out. It’s a delicate oil, with some nice tomato, apple and even spice on the nose before revealing quite a lot of complexity in the mouth with flavours of almond, lettuce and other salad bowl flavours. There’s a slither of bitterness and a little bit of spice to finish but this is not a ‘big’ oil, just really well-balanced and very elegant.
Rosmaninho, Cooperativa de Olivicultores de Valpaços
Rosmaninho is made by the excellent Valpacos Co-operative in Portugal’s Tras-os-Montes area, just north of the Douro, it’s a very traditional blend of Verdeal, Madural and Cobrançosa olives (as per the Trás-os-Montes PDO). It has some lovely upfront fruit with ripe-ish tomato and green apple being the dominant notes for me leading into flavours of nuts and dried herbs. I didn’t get much bitterness or pungency although this may be because I was trying quite late in the year. Delicate but with quite a bit going on, I can imagine this being excellent with fish, soft cheese or anything fresh. Such good value, going for well under five euros locally.
Situated in the large central region of the Alentejo, Esporão is one of Portugal’s most significant wine producers and began making olive oil in 1997. Its trees are planted near its vineyards and the estate’s forests and comprises galega and cordovil as well as some other varieties. The monovarietal Galega – the iconic olive of the region and probably all of Portugal (see above) – they make is really good. Lots of fruit aromas – apples but I also got a whiff of something tropical, maybe passion fruit or lychee. This is definitely not a bitter oil and flavours in the mouth are on the sweet and nutty side with very little pungency. Esporão themselves recommend this on celery, fennel, asparagus or fish stews and I reckon that’s probably spot on.