The Flavor Difference Between Northern And Southern Italian Olive Oil

When you're making a quick grocery run to restock your pantry staples, you may not be thinking of all the flavor intricacies of olive oil. However, olive oil is actually just as complex as wine, and it's produced in different ways across the world, mostly in the Mediterranean and Europe and especially in Spain, Greece, and, of course, Italy. Even within Italy, the flavor of Italian olive oil varies greatly from region to region.

Northern Italian olive oil is the lightest of the bunch. Most olive oil from this region comes from the Lake Garda area. Typically light to medium in body, this oil is mild in taste and not very acidic. Flavor-wise, it is fresh, herbaceous, and grassy. Liguria in northwest Italy is also known for its delicate, low-acid oils. Central Italian olive oil producers, primarily from Tuscany and Umbria, meanwhile, famously make olive oil that is rich in flavor, vibrant green in color, and has a characteristically peppery bite. Finally, southern Italian olive oil is known for being fruity, soft, and buttery — a nice middle ground between the light and herbal tastes of northern olive oil and the assertive central Italian varieties.

Why does the taste of olive oil vary so much?

As is the case with any fruit, many factors contribute to the taste of olives and their extracted oil, such as climate, soil type, and even regional practices around harvesting and processing. Additionally, different types of olives flourish in different regions and countries, further contributing to distinctions in the resulting oil.

In northern Italy, the climate is much colder. Because of this, olives need to be harvested earlier in the season to avoid the first frosts, so they are not fully ripe. The south, however, has a warm, characteristically Mediterranean climate, and the growing season is much longer. There, olives stay on the vine for a greater amount of time and mellow in flavor as they do.

Lighter olive oils are great for fish, fresh vegetables, and drizzling to finish a dish, while bolder olive oils can stand up to red meat and rich braises. Either way, Italy has great olive oils from across the country — so for olive oil lovers, it is definitely worth getting your hands on a couple of bottles.