Olive oil, like wine, has its share of small-harvest, boutique brands. The question remains as to whether or not their products are worth their higher prices. With the exception of lab tests conducted for purity, testing olive-oil quality is not an exact science. When it comes to taste buds, personal preference is not subject to price, nationality or gourmet trendiness, and reviewers sometimes admit to liking an ultra-cheap supermarket brand as much as, or even more than, its expensive, small-harvest, premium counterpart.
Recommendations are all over the map when it comes to premium olive-oil brands. For our report, we looked for brands that had been highly rated in more than one taste test and were more widely available than other premium brands, many of which are only available regionally or in specialty stores. Columela Extra Virgin Olive Oil (*Est. $19 for 17 oz.), garners some of the most convincing reviews, including a top pick from a major review source, where testers cite Columela's "big olive aroma," "robust flavor" and "peppery finish." We also can't ignore the scores of rhapsodic user posts for this olive oil on Amazon.com, as well as similar praises sung on numerous other sites.
Once you get into small-batch and specialty oils, it's hard to find much consensus. There are simply so many brands (many of them regional) that it's hard to pin down sure favorites. Bariani Extra Virgin Olive Oil (*Est. $11 for 16.9 oz.) is a strong contender, especially in user reviews at Chowhound.com and Amazon.com (where it garners more than 30 enthusiastic reviews). In addition, Italy's Ravida Extra Virgin Olive Oil (*Est. $30 for 16.9 oz.) and Spain's Nunez de Prado Flor de Aceite Extra Virgin Olive Oi (*Est. $45 for 500 ml.) both win high praise from TheNibble.com's Stephanie Zonis in her "Great Extra Virgin Olive Oil Project" taste test, as well as from food critic Jeremy Lee in his 2007 olive-oil review for the London-based newspaper The Observer.
Another runner up from Italy, Lucini Extra Virgin Olive Oil (*Est.$20 for 17 oz.), is the winner for flavor (if cost weren't a criteria) in Bon Appetit's "Supermarket Standoff", with praise for its fruity, nutty, peppery finish. Another major review site also gives high marks to Lucini olive oil for these qualities, while Food and Wine magazine deems it zippy and refreshing.
Most olive oils are imported, and they are usually made in Spain, Italy or Greece, but a few review sites are paying special attention to the extra-virgin olive oils currently produced in California. Among these, California Olive Ranch Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil (*Est. $13 for 16.9 oz.) comes in for more positive mentions than other domestically produced olive oils, with praise for its nutty, fruity flavor and relatively modest price. Another California oil, Apollo Mistral Extra Virgin Olive Oil (*Est. $23 for 500 ml.), also does well with a couple of reviewers, most notably the food critics at Bon Appetit and TheNibble.com, but it is deemed too bitter by one major review source.