Professional tasters serve a critical role in the industry, as their analysis helps determine an olive oil’s grade. The IOC is the only organization that certifies and monitors the performance of olive oil sensory panels around the world. Because sensory analysis is subjective by nature (consider how some people deplore spicy foods while others can’t get enough…), certified panel scores reflect a compilation of the panel’s results rather than an individual’s score. Detailed methods describe the condition of the tasting environment, sample preparation and tasting tools and even a list of rules tasters must follow such as no coffee, eating or smoking before sessions. Every effort is made to minimize bias and train the tasters to be objective in their work. Detailed information on IOC organoleptic assessment can be found on its website here.
Sensory panels use a line scale to rate olive oil’s intensity on three positive attributes:
Preference can emerge especially where bitterness and pungency are concerned but these are considered positive attributes. From a quality and marketability perspective, the balance of these positive attributes is a key consideration.
The intensity of negative attributes is also rated by the panel and the IOC specifies five most common defects:
To be deemed extra virgin, the oil must not have any defects and must have a median fruity score greater than zero. Given that the range of flavors is so broad, it is important to remember a "different" taste is not necessarily "bad." Sensory perception is highly influenced by personal history and familiarity and professional tasters need to become adept at naming specific sensations so they avoid mistaking a new taste for a defect. Panelists need to practice and be exposed to oils from a broad range of regions, olive varieties and times of harvest. This is one reason the IOC requires certified sensory panels to successfully complete ring-tests using pre-identified oils each year in order to maintain the panel's certification.
While professional panels focus on detecting defects, the rest of us can focus on the fun part -appreciating the multitude of positive nuances in extra virgin olive oils! Anyone can practice olive oil tasting, even a simple comparison at home or with a group of fellow EVOO-appreciators (like wine, group tasting gives you more variety at a lower out-of-pocket cost!) Groups can also help you learn more quickly, as easily-named flavors will be reinforced while some individuals will inevitably pick up notes others missed on the first pass. Whether going solo or at a gathering, all you need are a few oils, a few tasting supplies and then follow the tips below:
Once you’ve had your fill of EVOO shots, you can have some real fun by working on pairing different oils with different foods. You'll be amazed at the variety and results!