Saturday, September 30, 2017
Oiling the wheels
I went to get some oil the other day and I was a bit shocked when Paco, one of the owners, wanted 20€ for the five litre plastic bottle. It wasn't the price that was a shock, it was the difference in price between this and my last purchase. I'm sure it was 15€ last time. On the label the description of the oil says that it is de extracción en frio which means that it is cold pressed. I don't quite know what that means. My, very simple, understanding of olive oil is that the very green stuff, the extra virgin olive oil is the best, produced from the finest olives, whilst virgin oil is made with slightly riper or damaged olives which makes it slightly more acidic. Olive oil labelled simply as olive oil or pure olive oil is, usually, a mix of both pressed and refined oils. I think there is European legislation to say that any oil labelled virgin must pass a taste test and have been extracted from the olive by pressing rather than by chemical refinement. Because the label from our local almazara doesn't say virgin or extra virgin I can only presume that it doesn't reach the required criteria. Now there's another oil mill in Pinoso over towards Caballusa, near el Prat called Casa de la Arsenia. They produce virgin olive oil. They sell oil in half litre heavy bottles that look as though they are ceramic rather than glass. The name is a little more complicated- Ma' Şarah - with the apostrophe and that funny s, the typeface on the bottles is fancy, the colour scheme is chosen with care to look "organic" and "quality" and they stress the olive variety - either the more intensely flavoured oil made with picual olives or the lighter oil made from the arbequina variety. I bought some - one variety cost 9.40€ for half a litre and the other one costs 9.90€ which makes it about five times as expensive as the stuff from Brotons. They do five litre plastic bottles too, both organic and ordinary, with a mix of both olives.
So in one place we have traditional Spanish marketing and, in the other, “value added” through labelling, aesthetics and increased quality. Something similar is happening with the wine around here, well in Spain actually. Spain is usually listed behind Italy and France in global wine production though we were told in a bodega last year that Spain is now the largest producer in the world. There are several Spanish websites that say the same thing. Whatever the truth Spain produces a lot of wine and it sells most of it to other people who then put it into bottles, make it into sangria, sparkling wine or wine mixes. Most goes in big tankers to the French, Italians, Germans and Portuguese who turn the dirt cheap wine into something with value added, with nice labels, with cachet. Spaniards drink less and less wine and more beer every year but Googling around for who drinks most wine turns up very contradictory evidence. My best guess/synthesis is that, per head and in order, it's Andorra, Vatican City, Croatia, Portugal and France with an honourable mention for the Falkland Islands (Malvinas for my Spanish readers) at number 8 – the UK comes in at 29th. Quantity wise it seems to be the USA, France, Italy and Germany who top the lists but, whilst consumption in the USA is increasing, the French and Germans, like most Europeans, are drinking less wine each year. Expanding markets include Brazil, Canada and, inevitably, China.
A couple of years ago our bodega, Brotons, suddenly had new shaped bottles, new varieties, wine boxes, new labels and Roberto, the owner, became Robert. They were chasing a more sophisticated market. The same has been going on in Jumilla for a few years now and, in fact, all over Spain. When I visited the bodega in Pinoso the other day, which is the largest producer of organic wine in Alicante, it was obvious that they were on the same trail; new names, new labels and a few more barrels for producing crianzas and reservas down in the cellar rather than putting it into a HurTrans tanker - HurTrans is a transport firm with its roots in Culebrón.
Increasingly Spanish wine, is Denominación de Origen – where all the grapes must come from the region, where there is a body to oversee the production of the wine to ensure that it is produced in such and such a way with such and such controls and that basically it's as good a product as the region can produce. Our local DOs are Alicante, Jumilla, Yecla and a bit further away Bullas. Again, Googling around, there is a slightly more prestigious classification which is Denominación de Origen Calificada or DOCa. The main difference that I can see between ordinary DO and DOCa is that for DOCa the wine must be sold in bottles. That suggests to me that it may be possible for someone to produce wine that fits the DO criteria but is then bulk shipped to, lets say, Marks and Spencer who bottle it up in the UK but label it as DO Jumilla or Alicante.
So upping the game on olive oil and on the wine. As we passed the el Cabezo salt dome the other day, in the charabanc coming back from the marble quarry and heading for a tour of the Pinoso bodega our personable mayor, Lazaro, was complaining that the salt shipped from Pinoso to Torrevieja as brine should be labelled as being from Pinoso. I've seen coloured, and expensive, salt for sale that says it's from the Himalayas. Marketing, marketing – all is marketing.