Tuesday 23 November 2010

Olive Harvest

I originally posted a version of this on my Languedoc wine blog but olives are also very relevant to Aspiran of course.

Olive groves have been sprouting up all over the commune and the central Hérault valley over the past decade. Many of these will have been given a start in life by EU vine grubbing up payments - sadly a blunt instrument of a policy that doesn't protect prime vineyards (and Aspiran has some of the best), but that's another subject.

Young olive trees overlooking the Hérault valley
The Clermont l'Hérault olive oil coopérative was founded in 1920 and is famous in the locality. It was one of the few "huileries" to survive the devastating frosts of January 1956 that killed or crippled all the trees (and quite a few vines) in the south of France for years. Recovery has been painfully slow but steady since the 1990s.

This year the trees are heaving with olives and picking for oil production started at the beginning of November (most eating olives are picked from September when green and not fully ripe). While wine overproduction is nothing new in the Languedoc the Clermont huilerie seems to have an oil overproduction crisis as well.

According to the region's Midi Libre daily paper they sell 80,000 litres of their member's oil a year. However, last years harvest generated 215,000 litres so to address this, and help keep the price to the growers at €8 a litre, 15% less olives will be accepted from their members this year (I assume in practice the olives are pressed but the surplus oil is returned). There are exceptions for producers of less than about 40 litres plus those who signed up to the special "Japan" cuvée who will have all their oil accepted.

The challenge for southern French olive oil is the climate is actually at the northern limits for the olive tree. While quality and finesse is excellent and sometimes unbeatable, the yield is low and variable - a fraction of that achievable in southern Spain, Algeria, Greece etc. A typical tree will give just 2 to 3 litres of oil and to be economic local oils need to retail at around €14 to €18 a litre.

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