It's no secret that the olive oil industry is predominantly a man's world. Sure, there are some female makers and producers but, as with so many industries, not as many as we'd like. This is just one of the (many) reasons I emailed Lola Sagra to arrange a visit. Planning a trip to Andalucia to touch base with existing suppliers like Cortiquo Spiritu Santo and LaEspabila, I was also hoping to meet some new producers and her company Nobleza del Sur was top of my list.
Nobleza del Sur have been making kickass, multi-award-winning oils since 1640 which they bottle in some of the most gorgeous packaging I've seen. I went to see Lola at her mill and offices in Castellar just north of Jaen in late January. It was downtime at the mill and there was a lovely quiet about the place with only a skeletal staff performing tweaks to machinery, bottling and labelling the bottles for orders they send all over the world.
Lola's enthusiasm for all things olive oil is clear. She delights in every last detail of the process and her signature is on every aspect of Nobleza del Sur. As the managing director she doesn't just manage the business, oversee sales, marketing and collaborate with artists to design packaging and bottles, she also decides when the olives are ready for harvesting.
This last responsibility is the big one. As she says herself, this is the moment that gives each oil it's unique DNA. Lola has been part of this process since she was a child but every year is as nerve-wracking as the first with a huge buildup of "nervios" as the moment approaches. It's almost like waiting for a child to be born. Once the decision is made, the olives are gathered over the course of just a few hours and milled almost immediately afterwards. A mistake at this stage can completely change the end result.
Like any great wine, a great olive oil has to be balanced. There are the tasting notes that are naturally present in each olive variety - Picuals are peppery while Arbequinas tend to be delicate and buttery etc. It's how you balance these notes against everything else that is crucial.
These days most makers are harvesting early i.e. before the fruit is fully ripe. This ensures a higher polyphenol content. Polyphenols are the antioxidants that make olive oil so good for us and research shows that everything from heart health and circulation to brain function is improved by regular daily consumption of early harvest olive oil. The fresher, greener taste along with all this research means that early harvesting is fast becoming the norm for good quality oils.
While consuming early harvested oils will definitely make your cardiologist happy, from a flavour perspective it’s essential to ensure that the higher polyphenol count doesn’t make the oil too bitter and astringent. Balancing these bitter notes against the other sweet, herbal and spicy ones is an art and it’s what makes a great oil. In this way, as Lola herself notes, olive oil has so much in common with winemaking.
Nobleza del Sur farms just over 3,000 hectares near Jaen, Andalucia where a very unique Mediterranean microclimate, abundant sunshine, and fertile lands close to the Guadalimar river combine to create the perfect setting for world-class olive oil production. Sustainability is at the heart of the company’s ethos. Lola is very clear that the biodiversity she encourages in the groves not only benefits the region it also adds to the complex tapestry of flavours you get from her oils.
And the oils? She gave me a blind tasting and really they were beyond what I had expected. Each one offering layer after layer of beautifully balanced flavour. I was blown away. The Centenarium is everything you'd expect from an oil that has received 99 points (out of 100) from the prestigious Flos Olei awards (it's kind of the Olympics of olive oil in case you're not familiar). It's as bold and jazzy as a Picual can be with plenty of fresh green notes (it's early harvest of course) and even a little of the lavender Lola grows alongside the olives in the groves. Superb.
Her Arbequina is light and lovely but with a nice bit of structure that gives it the backbone this variety can sometimes lack. She also introduced me to her more economical ranges which are economical enough for everyday frying and baking but tasty enough for drizzling. I’ve been having a hard time keeping her 5l Picual bottles in stock since we brought them in a few months ago and I recently launched Nobleza del Sur’s Reserva Familiar and the feedback has been brilliant. At the higher end, Centenarium Picual recently cleaned up at New York’s Olive Oil awards and is stocked in Butler’s Pantry while this Arbequina bottle has something of a cult following.
In a very short space of time the response to Nobleza del Sur here in Ireland has been phenomenal and I'd love to welcome Lola to Dublin to talk about how she makes her oils. Despite her limited English she's up for it. In fact, she’s brimming with plans and projects that go in all directions and I get the feeling that she's only getting started. As the olive oil industry grows around the world Nobleza del Sur will too and I can't wait to see what she does next.