Food Friday: Olive Oil in Rioja

Food Friday: Olive Oil in Rioja

When people think about Rioja Alavesan, they think wine – red Rioja wine. Over the past few decades, this land has been mainly inhabited by vineyards due to its fertile soil attracting many big wineries. As a result, the region has become internationally known for the wine that has sustained local populations for centuries.

View of rioja region

The wine boom of the Rioja region over the last decades has made people forget about the production of an extremely valuable good. The Mediterranean Olive tree has been a valuable source of goods to the area, mainly because of its juice – the oil. However, the rise in popularity of Rioja wine and the power of olive producers in the Southern regions of the country made olive trees a forgotten commodity for a few generations.

Olive trees

Luckily, some young people from Moreta decided they could not leave those ancient trees to die and be replaced by Rioja vines. Many trees are over 500 years old and were soon to be not only forgotten, but cut down. Nowadays, olive tree plantations cover 300 hectares of land where in the past they accounted for up to 1000. Consquently there are 35 times more grapevines than olive trees thus having a great impact on the changing cultivation of the land.

Olive trees in rioja

A local variety

The variety of Rioja Alavesa olives didn’t even have a name a few years ago. After a tasting in the South of Spain, the olive of this variety started to be rescued and respected, and thus it received a name – Arroniz, the name of a local Navarrese Rioja village.

The Arroniz variety is quite an exclusive olive since it is only grown in the Rioja region. Currently, coorperatives produces about 85,000 litres of olive oil to sell locally. There is one brand, however, that is different from the others. Rivo de Moreta is a small brand run by 4 young friends, determined to rescue the trees abandoned by their grandparents. For 4 years, they have been dedicated to producing very high quality extra virgin olive oil. What makes them different is that they concentrate on producing eco-friendly oil for exclusive markets. The result? Fabulous!

Different olive oils from Spain during the tasting

The Basque Model: the cooperative way of producing

Still, the production of olive oil in Rioja remains relatively small and local. There are four olive mills in the whole region that produce the olive oil in a cooperative business style. Each member of the mill is also an owner who, under specific internal regulation, can make use of the mill for producing olive oil. Rivo de Moreta is produced in the cooperative mill of Moreta. The olive oil sold under the brand La Equidad comes from the same mill, and it is the result of the work of most of the members’ production.

The cooperative way of producing goods has been distinctive for the Basque region. The industrialisation of provinces like Gipuzkoa (its capital is the well-know San Sebastian) could not have happened if it were not because of this solidarity agreement between members of the business. The olive oil production also shows the importance of solidarity between local producers in order to share the market.

Ancient olive press

Some perspective for the future

There is a big recovery project in progress in Rioja to not only to plant new olives and honour this valuable juice from the land of our ancestors, but to start producing olive oil from the ancient trees. It is important to remember that this production comes from a big commitment by young people to their ancestral lands, giving respect to the power of its soil that can produce top quality wines and extra virgin olive oil. It is also due to a commitment to consume locally-produced, healthy products in a world where the quality of food and food production is getting worse and worse.

In order to promote this small production, visits to the mill are welcomed if booked in advance. This will give visitors a more comprehensive view of the Rioja region. However the best way to experience Basque hospitality is over a meal of good wine and local cuisine!

About author

Tomasz Kolinski

Owner and tour guide @ San Sebastian Urban Adventures. Tour leader @ Intrepid Travel. Love the Basque Country, gastronomy, pintxos, and San Sebastian.