Sunday, August 30, 2009

New Zealand Regions Get Ahead

The new olive growing regions of New Zealand in Marlborough/Nelson and Hawkes Bay are as close to Paradise that some of us will ever get. Interspersed amongst the world famous vines giving us great whites and much improved reds, the olive groves produce a wide array of respectable, and occasionally exceptional, olive oils.

During two-day seminars in Blenheim (South Island) and Napier (south east of the North Island) I had the pleasure of meeting the enthusiastic producers, distributors and retailers of these regions and tasting their new season olive oils. The purpose of the seminars was to provide taste training, evaluation of olive oils and blending - all from a market perspective.

Data for the size of the New Zealand market, and the local markets in each location, was scratchy. However, data purchased by Olive Business from the New Zealand statistical office shows that imports of olive oil were around 4,000 tonnes a year and local production was estimated to be around 400 tonnes. Approximately 30-40% of imports are extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), add the local production to this and we get an estimate of 1500 tonnes of EVOO consumed every year in New Zealand. This is more than three times current local production, showing that many New Zealanders are already ‘educated’ in the use of extra virgin olive oil. This makes the marketing task easier – shifting usage to New Zealand product as opposed to getting consumers to use a new product.

To Market, to Market

The first day of the seminars examined this market environment and participants tasted their own oils with special emphasis on style and flavour. Each oil was also given a commercial assessment and some interesting trends emerged. Most of the olive oils from both locations were assessed as medium or robust. There were few delicate oils and even those were on the medium side of delicate. The oils from particular varietals were generally similar. In both locations there were olive oils that had well differentiated, even outstanding, flavour profiles – but these were the exception.

Hawkes Bay seminar underway

The olive oils available were mostly of Italian varietal origin – frantoio, leccino – with some picual, koreneiki, barnea and picholene. The Spanish varieties (picual and nevadillo blanco) did not exhibit the aromatic tropical fruit characteristics expected and given that consumers are used to this style for imported oils there is an opportunity for development in this area. The absence of a range of complex delicate oils usually associated with later harvesting creates a further opportunity.

In Hastings imported olive oils off the local supermarket shelf were slipped into the blind tasting to test the ‘all imported oils are faulty’ slogan. No rancidity was detected – however the floral-ripe tropical fruit aromas of the Spanish oils, imparted presumably by the Picual, Hojiblanca and Picudo varieties in the blends, disconcerted some of the tasters.

The price difference between the imported and local brands in the supermarket is closing but still significant. In some of the smaller supermarkets the local brands were on the bottom shelf, a sure sign that they were not moving, and the packaging was mainly in 250ml bottles, a sure sign that the product is expensive.

Given all these considerations – the limitations of local production, the style of the oils, price points to compete with imports and consumer preference – seminar participants worked in teams to develop a market brief and blend oils to meet the brief.

The Blenheim ‘blokes’ team works on its blending brief

This exercise was most revealing. The openness of the participants and the determination to take the industry from its current adolescence to maturity was most productive. The briefs developed were varied, practical and all could be implemented. The process revealed the valuable collective knowledge of the teams. Gaps in the range of oils available were identified and the advantage from a taste and volume perspective of blending became apparent.


Visits to a number of groves, including some of the largest, revealed the horticultural limitations that define productive capacity and oil characteristics. Early frost, pruning, disease, harvesting, and processing method and capacity affect the oil profile as much as the variety. Most accepted there was work to be done in these areas to achieve optimal efficiency and reduction of end price.

In the grove with (l-r) Bob Marshall, Shona Thompson, Rachael Speedy and Chris Crompton-Smith

It was acknowledged that price was both the determinant of profitability for the producer and the most important consideration with consumers. The presence of retailers brought reality to the discussions with the simple message that the price expectation of producers was too high and there needed to be adjustments to the supply chain to bring the retail price down within consumer expectation set by imported brands.

One way of reducing the price, obtaining more delicate oils and insuring against crop failure is to retain a proportion of oils from previous seasons. Generally the oils tasted were robust enough to do this. This also enabled ‘back-blending’ to reduce price and preserve particular traits for consistency. Blending with refined oils and other vegetable oils were also discussed to produce products which will compete directly with the imported ‘pure’ and light olive oils in supermarkets.


Differentiation in markets for the olive oils for the two regions can be achieved through Denomination of Origin (PDO) certification and ‘tested to international standard’ labelling. The testing to international standard would provide a range of chemical data to further define the health attributes of the fatty acid profile and anti-oxidants of the olive oils. The polyphenol levels from the analysis will provide data for blending for longer shelf-life.

The ‘tested to international standard’ branding would also position the complying oils ahead of the existing ‘ONZ Certified Extra Virgin’ mark which has a far less rigorous testing regime.

The ‘girls’ teams in Blenheim differentiating their oils through blending

To round off the regional advantages for marketing, both regions have well established wine and tourism industries on which to build the olive oil profile. The food culture is well developed and in most restaurants at least two local extra virgin olive oils are used. Visits to retailers showed some reluctance to stock and promote local oils because of price. There is an adage which says ‘if you cannot win in the local market you won’t win in other markets’. The intention expressed by participants is to work on this through collection and analysis of market data and more cooperation along the supply-chain.

Kiwi Oil

On a lighter note, while enjoying delicious fish and chips on the sunny harbourside in Napier, we noticed an offering of ‘green salad drizzled with Kiwi Oil’. Was this a new product to compete with Emu Oil we asked the waitress? With the confidence of youth she told us it was the oil extracted from the Kiwi fruit. We smiled when we realised that the oil is in fact a locally produced olive oil called ‘Kiwi’. There is work to be done with foodservice too.

Harnessing the Assets

The Marlborough/Nelson and Hawkes Bay olive industry in New Zealand, as reflected by participants in the seminars, is determined and talented. Their olive oils are good quality and market success will come through differentiation through taste, price and innovative marketing. The teamwork during the seminars shows that there is the cohesion, resourcefulness and increasing knowledge to make this happen.

These are the assets of the industry which when harnessed will bring its success.

Align all this with the already established local food and wine culture attracting tourism and the worldwide profile of the wines – Marlborough/Nelson and Hawkes Bay will be Paradise regained.

Thank you to all who showed typical Kiwi hospitality and endless humour, especially Phyllis and Mark Heard of Awatere River Extra Virgin Olive Oil who took the initiative to organise the seminars, and Rachael Speedy and Nigel Macintosh of Paul Holmes Extra Virgin Olive Oil who promoted the Hawkes Bay seminar. Thanks also to Andrew and Delyth Taylor of Olive Culture who took me to many groves in Hawkes Bay and taught me a lot about pruning and how to drive up frighteningly steep hills.