Greek agriculturist Giorgos Paraskevopoulos tastes olive oil like the French taste wine: all the senses must be engaged. “Selecting a good-quality olive oil is a lot like picking a fine bottle of wine – it must have excellent aroma, taste and appearance,” he said in the southern resort of Costa Navarino, where the annual olive oil harvest is in full-swing.
The resort near the city of Kalamata, which lends its name to a meaty olive variety popular the world over, is at the centre of a new push by Greece to revamp its olive oil industry during the economic crisis. Thousands of acres are being planted, and new mills are being built. Producers are investing in fancy packaging and marketing to lift the profile of Greek olive oil.
Greece was the largest producer of olive oil in the ancient world. In recent decades, the trade has become almost solely dependent on exports to Italy, which buys some 60 per cent of Greece’s annual olive harvest. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company said in a report that Italian companies were making a 50 percent premium on the price of the olive oil they produce and sell using Greek olives.
“Greece is the world’s third-largest producer of olive oil and in the past five years we have seen a new trend in the overall rise of olive oil exports – mainly by olive oil producers who are now bottling and branding the product as their own,” says Grigoris Antoniadis, president of the Hellenic Olive Oil Packers Association.
“On a good year, Greece produces 300,000 tons of olive oil,” says Antoniades, who estimates that this year’s harvest will be around 50 percent less of what it was last year, mainly due to unfavourable weather conditions which saw little rain during the spring. Sarantos Polyzois, who runs a modern olive mill in the village of Kremmydia in Messinia and exports his 1000 Horia (1000 Villages) to Germany and Austria, says Greek olive oil is facing an identity crisis.
“We need to explain to foreign consumers why its worth selecting Greek olive oil, rather than Italian or Spanish. We need to make it clear why we are different and due to geography and climate Kalamata olive oil is among the best in the world.” Last year, Greek olive oil exports were up 24 percent in Germany and 67.5 per cent in China.
That figure is likely to increase as companies producing top quality oils are cutting prices to boost exports. “Greece did not know the modern art of marketing itself to consumers – its products are great but they were unknown on the world market – until now,” says Peter Poulos, who together with Marina Papatoni founded the Navarino Icons brand three years ago.
“We recognised a need for high quality, beautifully packaged Greek food and cultural products in the international market place.” Today, extra-virgin olive oil by Costa Navarino can be found at high-end stores across the globe, including Dean & DeLuca in the United States, Harrods and Marks & Spencer in Britain, as well as shops in Hong Kong and Singapore.
“We are actively looking to expand into markets where we know consumers appreciate the quality of Greek products including the rest of the Americas and Europe, the Middle East and Asia and Australia,” says Poulos. Many farmers still harvest olive by hand, refusing to use mechanical shakers.
“The best olive oil is extra-virgin olive oil which has less than 0.8 acidity,” says Paraskevopoulos, adding that the more than 10,000 trees producing the Koroneiki variety olive at Costa Navarino have acidity oil levels under 0.3. “You want to choose olive oil from the most recent harvest. Like with wine, different seasons and different years make for unique oil – but unlike wine, fresher is better,” he adds.Greece jazzes up olive oil to boost sales,