Make My Oil A Vintage 1999

Top-quality olive oils have many similarities to wine

It was in the kitchen of Babbo, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, that I had my epiphany. Andy Nusser, chef de cuisine, poured a golden-green stream onto a white dish. I took a taste, and to my surprise, I thought of orchards. "Fruity, isn't it?" Nusser said. Yes, and more. Now I could taste almonds. I looked at the bottle of liquid that had these flavors. The label said Prezioso, 1999. I later learned that a 500-milliliter bottle retails for $25. If we were talking wine, I could understand. But this was olive oil.

Then again, it was not your nonna's olive oil. Prezioso is one of the oils with complex flavors and champagne prices that have begun popping up in gourmet stores in the last few years. Made by mellifluously named estates in Italy, France, and even California, most have labels that note the vintage and the olive varieties used. Some even include notes on how the oil tastes, such as artichoke and lemon. Good olive oil has "a body and texture and smell that's incredible," says Mario Batali, Babbo's owner. "It brings a whole field in Tuscany into your nose."

But Batali isn't smelling those Italian groves while he is sauteing. These estate oils, which can fetch as much as $50 for a 500-ml bottle, are used strictly as condiments, to drizzle over a steak or salad seconds before serving. Cook with these pricey oils, and their flavors, well, go up in smoke.

That would be a shame because the oils have distinctive characters. As with wines, their flavors are often traceable to the regions the oils are from. Some, such as the current "in" oils from Tuscany, are grassy and slightly bitter, with a peppery kick or "grip" that gets you in the throat. They can finish a dish with strong flavors, like osso buco. I took a sip of one Tuscan oil, from Fattoria Niccolini in Seggiano ($23.95 for a 750-ml bottle), and ended up coughing. No wonder the heartier oils are rated as "three-cough," says Paul Ferrari of A.G. Ferrari Foods, a San Leandro (Calif.) importer and retailer. Others are more buttery and may add flavor to a light dish, like grilled fish.

The high-end market belongs mostly to imports. But there's a budding cottage industry in California. A few estates already are making top-notch oils, such as DaVero ($22 for a 375-ml bottle), which won a tasting in Italy in 1997. Production both here and overseas usually is small, as a tree yields just about a liter of oil. The oils are made right after harvest by crushing the olives, pits and all, under stone wheels and pressing the oil out of the resulting paste.

Selecting from among these little-known oils may leave you feeling a bit lost. Remember that any good oil will have the quaint term, "extra virgin," on its label. That means the oils have been extracted without heat or chemicals, with the result, among other positive attributes, that oleic acids make up less than 1% of the oil. The acids are a sign of deterioration.

Olive oil doesn't keep for long. Eighteen months or so is the limit for unopened bottles. So check the vintage. And use the oil, don't hoard it. It's better to buy in spring--close to the September-to-January harvest--when the oil is fresh and the flavors are most intense. If you're buying later in the year or are planning to store the oil for a while, the greener, bitter oils last longer than the softer, golden ones. That's because they have loads of polyphenols, the antioxidants in the fruit that give the oil its kick and keep it from going rancid. Green oils are made from olives that are picked early, before the fruit has ripened. Golden oils come from ripe olives, which have lost a lot of polyphenols.

Some olive varieties, too, start off with more polyphenols. So oils from those--say, the Italian coratina and the Spanish mission--also will keep longer than oils pressed from other varieties, says Paul Vossen, a farm expert at the University of California Cooperative Extension.

For really fresh oils, you can try an olio nuovo, which are bottled fresh off the presses. Those made overseas are flown to the U.S. for aficionados eager for the latest vintage to sprinkle over carrot sticks. But olio nuovo may not be the best gift to bring a hostess. They're so intense, "she might think you were trying to kill her," says Albert Katz of Katz & Co., a Napa (Calif.) distributor. The oil is bottled before the water from the juice can settle and be removed. This hastens oxidation, so the oil can go bad in weeks.

Whichever kind you prefer, you can't go wrong if you taste the oil before you buy, and many gourmet stores will let you do that. Look at where the oils are kept, though. Light and heat speed deterioration. "If the oil is near the front window or under a skylight, I'd be concerned," says Ed Valenzuela, sales director of Manicaretti Imports in Oakland, Calif. Remember, too, that dark bottles are better than clear, and cans even more so. If you're buying via a catalog or the Web, question the vendor about when the oil was pressed and how it has been stored.

Bear in mind that opening the bottle will shorten its life by a third. Roberto Zecca, a producer in Mill Valley, Calif., stores his in the fridge. This may shock some purists, but he swears by it. When you need to use it, just let the oil warm to room temperature and drizzle.

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