Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Olive Harvest

This is not a post on wine, but there is a connection and, sadly, a shared plight. Olive groves have been sprouting up all over the place in the central Hérault valley over the past decade. Many of these will have been given a start in life by EU vine grubbing up payments - sadly a blunt instrument of a policy that doesn't protect prime terroir, but that's another subject.

Young olive trees overlooking the Hérault valley
The Clermont l'Hérault olive oil coopérative was founded in 1920 and is famous in the locality. It was one of the few "huileries" to survive the devastating frosts of January 1956 that killed or crippled all the trees (and quite a few vines) in the south of France for years. Recovery has been painfully slow but steady since the 1990s.

This year the trees are heaving with olives and picking for oil production started at the beginning of November (most eating olives are picked from September when green and not fully ripe). While wine overproduction is nothing new in the Languedoc the Clermont huilerie seems to have an oil overproduction crisis as well.

According to the region's Midi Libre daily paper they sell 80,000 litres of their member's oil a year. However, last years harvest generated 215,000 litres so to address this, and help keep the price to the growers at €8 a litre, 15% less olives will be accepted from their members this year (I assume in practice the olives are pressed but the surplus oil is returned). There are exceptions for producers of less than about 40 litres plus those who signed up to the special "Japan" cuvée who will have all their oil accepted.

The challenge for southern French olive oil is the climate is actually at the northern limits for the olive tree. It's a bit like Riesling from the Mosel. While quality and finesse is excellent and sometimes unbeatable, the yield is low and variable - a fraction of that achievable in southern Spain, Algeria, Greece etc. A typical tree will give just 2 to 3 litres of oil and to be economic local oils need to retail at around €14 to €18 a litre.


  1. Graham
    Most interesting, thank you. I have a 2 hectare field not far from Clermont l'Herault, on which I was thinking of planting olives (there are olives on a couple of nearby fields). The obvious thing would have been to join the Clermont co-op. The economics suggested by your article suggest I should abandon the idea as, potentially, seriously loss making.

  2. Philip - the full article is on-line (at least for now) here

    Perhaps truffle oaks are a possibility, there are at least two plantations in Aspiran - see