Couple getting in the olive groove

Last updated 08:05 19/06/2014
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Taste test: Helen Meehan with a range of oils at Olivo grove, Martinborough.

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There are several ways to harvest olives: laboriously beating the trees with sticks, using a hand rake, or using a mechanical rake.

But Helen Meehan, owner of olive grove Olivo in Martinborough, in the Wairarapa, prefers the relatively new method of mechanically shaking the tree until the olives drop into nets.

It's all about saving time, she explains, even though about 20 per cent of the crop stays on the tree.

"My big worry is frosts and rain. If we do it with the mechanical rakes, it takes several weeks but with the tree-shaking method we can finish in about a week, so there's less chance of getting caught by the weather," she says.

A machine equipped with two arms grasps the trunk of the tree and gives it a shake for a minute until most of the olives fall into a catcher.

This year's harvest is in full swing and will be completed in time for the Martinborough Olive Harvest Festival on June 28-29.

It's shaping up as another good year, perhaps equalling last year's 16-tonne crop. If nothing else, the oil will be top quality. As a percentage of oil in the olives, this year's crop is averaging a high 15 per cent.

Helen and her husband, John, bought the 4.5-hectare grove in 2003. At the time they were living in Wellington, where she was working in information management at Telecom after stints in government departments including the State Service Commission; he was a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Casting around for an olive grove, they had first eyed Nelson because they had friends there, but prices were soaring. It was then that the chance came to buy Olivo, a pioneering grove planted in 700 trees of the barnea cultivar, three kilometres out of Martinborough.

On the edge of the Martinborough gravels which give the local wines their distinctive flavours, the grove lies on a slight rise which discourages frost.

Although they had no background in horticulture, the Meehans knew how to run a business. Helen credits her colleagues at Telecom with instilling marketing nous in her.

In the first years, with a son still at secondary school, the Meehans continued to live in Wellington, and Helen made the trek over the Rimutaka Hill every Friday morning and returned on Monday.

They carried out their first harvest - a meagre four tonnes - a month after buying the property. But thanks to some hard work, that quickly changed.

"I put lots of resources into them, fertilised and pruned the trees, and the next season we got a bumper crop of 23 tonnes," Helen says.

Even though they have planted a further 500 trees, they have never again approached this tonnage. She puts it down to the fact the trees responded to close attention.

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The new varieties planted included lecchino and frantoio (from Tuscany), manzanillo (southern Spain), and koroneiki (Greece).

Each has characteristics that Helen can identify. For the barnea it's apples, manzanillo approximates green bananas, lecchino is a mellow flavour.

"I make an extra virgin blend from a mix of all our varieties. It's like a science experiment as you smell each varietal for defects and fruity flavours. In the end you are getting my palate," she says.

Depending on the season, the oil can be one of three classes: intense, medium or delicate. A dry year creates an intense oil, a wet year a delicate one. In that sense, olives are similar to grapes.

They are also alike in the need for warm, gentle breezes at pollination time in December.

"December is a critical time. If you have three weeks of gales, you know you will have no crop - fortunately that has never happened. And then you need hot days and cool nights, which Martinborough often has," she says.

Like grapes, olives reflect the terroir of the region. New Zealand is close to the margin for olive growing, but according to Helen that is the reason for its "gorgeous flavoured oil".

John chimes in that New Zealand olives taste "fresh and grassy", bearing the influence of the surrounding sea and lush growing conditions - the opposite of the stony, dry soils associated with the Mediterranean.

The Meehans use the co-operative Masterton press to process their olives. All New Zealand oil is extra virgin, she says, because there is not the volume of olives to feed the large presses that in Europe produce inferior quality oils, with the help of industrial chemicals.

Each year the Meehans forward their oils to qualify for Olives New Zealand Certification. They must meet bottling and labelling standards as well as the chemical and sensory criteria that the International Olive Council demands. Once all the requirements are met, they can apply the coveted OliveMark to their bottles.

Putting her innovative hat on, Helen decided early on to introduce a range of infused oils, using her finest oils as a base. So far she has created lemon, orange, smoked chilli, porcini, fennel, smoked paprika and cumin oils.

In New Zealand the Meehans' products are sold through stores such as Moore Wilson's and Farro Fresh. They also sell in Canada, an easier destination to export to than the United States, but since they launched there the dollar has appreciated from 65 to 95 cents against the Canadian.

"Having Wellington on our doorstep is a big part of our success. And on their long weekends we get good numbers of Australians coming through. About 32 per cent of our turnover is generated in the tasting room," says Helen.

While they enter their oils into international competitions, the Meehans find they are disadvantaged because the competitions are geared towards the European harvest, and the New Zealand oils are six months older than their European counterparts.

Pruning is done in September/October, and afterwards the trees are sprayed with copper to protect the foliage and fruit from a range of diseases. They are then fertilised with liquid seaweed.

Olive trees benefit from pruning, she observes. The fruit from new shoots is generally plumper and tastier.

- The Dominion Post

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