Before we get too far into how to taste olive oil, lets start with some basics.
There are three components of the flavor of olive oil. They are; fruitiness, pungency or pepperiness and bitterness.
There are several determining factors to the flavor of oil but the most important ones are the variety of the olive and the ripeness (maturity) of the olive at harvest.
Two other important factors are the milling process and where the olives are grown ~ more commonly known in the wine world as terrior. Terrior is a French term nearly always associated with wine but deserves understanding as it also impacts the flavors of olive oil, coffee and tea. Any of these products grown in one location (and of the same variety)
will have subtle or sometimes not so subtle distinctive taste differences from products from other locations..
Terrior is derived from terre, which means land. What it describes is the way the unique light (amount and intensity), soil quality and composition and the water (the elements within vary widely) come together to effect the growth of the vines, plants or trees that grow in that region.
Before tasting oil we need to remember that a large part of the sense of taste is actually smell. Think back to when you have a cold and nearly everything you eat has no taste because your nose is stuffed. With this in mind you will better understand the importance of the oil’s aroma and the method of tasting as well.
In the professional tasting world a tablespoon or so of oil is placed in a small dark color stem less goblet. This shape helps concentrate and direct the complex aromas as well as mask the color of the oil. At retail stores a small plastic cup is usually used.
We cover the opening of the glass and slowly swirl the glass to both release all of the aromatics as well as warming the oil closer to an ideal temperature. Cold oil does not display the complexity of the aroma and flavor and warm oil “flattens” the components of the flavor.
Uncover the sampler and inhale, noting the intensity and “pungency” of the oil. Is there a lot or just a little aroma? Is it “mild” or extremely powerful? What does it remind you of?
The next step everyone enjoys. The goal is to aerosolize the oil into very fine droplets that will make contact to as much of the tongue and palate both on the mouth side and the nasal side.
As a youngster when we are having a hot spoon of soup we sip and at the same time we “slurp” as much cool air as possible. This is the same technique to be used when tasting olive oil. This method helps distribute the oil to as much of the oral lining and palate that is possible. As we begin the complete swallowing, exhaling specifically through the nose forces the aroma and lots of taste through back of the throat and up through the back of the palate which contains receptors very sensitive to smell in taste. Finally note with in a few seconds the “sensation” in the back of the throat. This last sensation is directly related to the pungency of the oil which can be very mild or quite striking causing an involuntary cough or two or more!