When are olives harvested?

When are olives harvested? How ripe do they need to be? And how is it done? The answers aren’t as simple as you might think. Let’s take a look at the fascinating journey that takes olives from the olive grove to the press.
The olive harvest is a crucial time for producers of extra virgin olive oil. From the best time to harvest to the techniques used to do it, the quality of the oil produced depends on the decisions made during this delicate stage.

In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that when it comes to producing a quality oil, the olive harvest is just as important as taking care of the olive trees and the processing stage in the press.
The olive harvest is the transition between the two stages: on the one hand the life cycle of the olives is coming to an end, while on the other it is the beginning of the long, laborious process that turns them into oil and other tasty products.”
Harvesting the olives at the perfect time is the only way to obtain a balanced, long-lasting product with a fragrant aroma. And it’s important to consider a whole series of variables when it comes to assessing the perfect time for the harvest.

The olive harvest

When are olives harvested? Generally speaking, olives are harvested in the autumn. But having said that, the perfect time for harvesting can vary from anywhere between October and December.
There are lots of factors that can affect the time of the harvest, but three key ones you need to keep in mind are the variety of the olives, their market destination and the weather.
  • Variety or cultivar: the time of the harvest can vary by several weeks when dealing with olives which ripen early, slightly late or late.
  • Destination: usually, for the production of quality oil and olives in brine, the perfect time is veraison. Much depends on the product you wish to obtain.
  • Climate: the time of the harvest can vary from one year to the next depending on climatic factors. For example, a very wet summer or an autumn with more frost than usual can have a bearing. The exposure of the plants to the sun can also affect the time of harvest.

The stages of olive ripening

The stages of olive ripening can be seen by the naked eye from the color of the skins. It’s important to observe this closely to gauge when to press ahead with the harvest. As with all fruits, olives go from unripe to ripe, but the process has five main stages.
  • Unripe olives: the olives are still growing at this point. The flesh is very hard and is not suitable for use yet.
  • Green olives: the skin of the olives is green and the fruits are rich in anti-oxidants. These olives are harvested around late September and early October. They’re ideal for the production of oils with a particularly fruity flavor and pleasantly spicy notes.
  • Veraison olives: at this stage, the color of the olives is turning from green to purple. The olives are harvested at this point when the aim is to produce an oil with the best possible qualities in terms of aroma and flavor. This is also the ideal stage of ripening for table olives.
  • Fully ripened olives: the skin of the fruit is almost entirely black. This is the optimum phase for the production of oil in terms of quantity, but it’s less suitable if the highest quality is the aim.
  • Over-ripened olives: at this point, the olives begin to fall off the tree to the ground and are at risk of being attacked by insects and mold. These olives produce oils of inferior quality, with greater acidity and a less intense flavor.

How olives are harvested

In addition to the right time, it’s also important to consider the technique used to harvest olives. The end product may take on different organoleptic characteristics based on the method chosen.
Stripping: the oldest method, whereby the fruit is harvested manually, directly from the tree. It has the advantage of not damaging the olives and avoiding fermentation processes, which can increase the level of acidity in the oil produced.

Abbacchiatura: this is the most widely used traditional method. The olives are made to fall from the trees into netting by hitting the branches with sticks. Combing: rakes are used to “comb” the olive trees.

Collection: this technique risks resulting in over-ripened olives and can lead to mold. The fruits are only collected once they have fallen naturally from the branches.

Shaking: this is a great time-saving technique. Special machines are used to shake the olive trees and make the fruit fall.

Machine harvesting: in super-intensive cultivation, the most common practice is to use machinery used in vine cultivation. These machines have vibrating arms, which comb and shake the trees at the same time. This high-intensity method allows you to harvest a hectare of olive trees in the space of an hour.

Quality and storage

In order to preserve the qualities of the olives and avoid damaging them ahead on the way to the press, it’s vital that specific storage instructions are followed for harvested olives.

The olives need to be placed in perforated plastic crates and efforts need to be made to avoid squashing them as much as possible. The olives can be stored in the crates for up to 24 hours before being transported from the olive grove to the press.
An excessive storage period can compromise the quality of the oil, as can the practice of storing olives in bags or poorly ventilated spaces.