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Oils of innovation

Innovation from the grove to the shelf is one of the reasons Cobram Estate is Australia’s most popular extra virgin olive oil.


Cobram Estate is a true success story. Since plating their first olive tree just 20 years ago, founders Rob McGavin and Paul Riordan have grown Cobram Estate to become Australia’s leading producer of premium extra virgin olive oil.

At Boundary Bend in north-western Victoria, Cobram Estate has established Australia’s largest olive farm. Flying into the groves, the sight of row upon row of olive trees, their silvery green leaves glistening against the vibrant red soil, is breathtaking. There are 1.3 million trees spread out across 6500 hectares. 

Business acumen has established Cobram Estate as one of Australia’s leading supermarket brands, and its burgeoning export market in Europe, USA and Asia is further proof of its remarkable growth.

But it is investment in technologies in every step of the process from the grove to the supermarket shelf that truly underpins Cobram Estate’s success.

“Research and innovation has always been part of our over arching theme,” says Rob down the phone line from a business trip to the USA. “We’ve always done it to get more yields of fruit or oil, or improve quality. Ultimately, it means we can give consumers premium quality olive oil at the cheapest price possible.”

In fact, so great is their contribution that last year their laboratory was named Best Institution for Research and Education for Extra Virgin Olive Oil at the global Health & Food, Extra Virgin Olive Oil Awards.


Intuitive Irrigation

One of the most impressive innovations is their irrigation system. Sitting on the edge of the outback, the desert-like terrain of the Boundary Bend site is perfect for olive trees as they are resilient to drought. However, they still need irrigating. Rather than just drip feed, Rob and his team have implemented a computerised and mechanised soil moisture monitoring and irrigation system.

“Every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we get readings of moisture of the soil across the groves at different depths; 30cm, 45cm, 60cm and one metre,” says Rob. “From this, we can see when the tree is using water and when it’s not, so we match its needs; how much we irrigate and when, so we can have the best possible use of water while maximising quality of the fruit.”


High Quality Harvesting

Cobram Estate’s specifically designed harvesters are one of the most important innovations and key to the company’s ability to compete on the international olive oil market. During harvest, the olives are picked around the clock, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Traditionally, fruit used to be picked by hand, but to get this volume you’d need 5000 people and the cost would be around $1 per kilogram.

The efficiency of Cobram Estate’s ‘Colossus’ harvesters, sees the fruit picked at around 10 cents per kilo.

“It’s unique to us and allows us to be very competitive,” says Rob. “A lot of Australian industries have not been able to compete with low labour cost countries. But by spending millions refining these machines, we’re able to produce a quality product at a competitive price.”

At the moment, the harvesters get about 90% of fruit from each tree. Cobram Estate’s 16-man research and tech team is working on pushing that efficiency toward 100%. Recent upgrades have seen the harvesters better protect each tree and reduce negative impacts on the soil.

And while many seasonal industries hire backpackers, Cobram Estate has a unique employment scheme. During harvest, grey nomads work the harvesters; trusted employees who return each season.


Fresh is Best

The fresher the olive, the better the olive oil is. So Cobram Estate has developed a system where the harvesting machines work in tandem with tractors and delivery trucks so there’s an absolute maximum of just four hours from the time an olive is picked until it is delivered to the processing plant, ensuring quality is locked in.

At the plant, the olives are washed, crushed and blended to make olive oil within two hours. This means it is just six hours from tree to olive oil, which is why Cobram Estate is constantly winning awards around the globe for its freshness and quality.


Getting Sorted

Quality is also the big winner from one of the more recent innovations adopted by Cobram Estate, a fruit sorter. Freshly picked olives are transported on a conveyor belt through this small but incredibly efficient machine.

Working at a rate of 20 tonnes of fruit per hour, the olives are scanned for size, colour, temperature and skin appearance. Any diseased, damaged or old olives are removed. Cobram trialled a fruit sorter during their 2017 harvest. The results were startling.

“The fruit sorters removed about 20 kilograms of bad fruit out of 20 tonnes,” details Rob. “The amount of rotten olives was reduced from .03 to .01, which doesn’t sound like much, but the resultant quality of the extra virgin olive oil increased by almost 20%, so it had a massive impact.”

The Common Good

While innovation has been the cornerstone of Cobram Estate’s success, the fact that they share the information they gather says a lot about the company and the people that run it.

“Olive oil has been produced for centuries, but we’ve worked hard to modernise the process,” says Rob. 

“As part of that journey we’ve published 18 peer reviewed research papers to solve issues we’ve faced, which is quite rare for a private institution. But it is about supporting the olive oil industry and the growers’ needs too. That’s why we share our information.

“If it results in better quality fruit and better quality olive oil, there are no losers. If someone else makes high quality olive oil, that’s great. They’ll spread the word.”

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The good oil on olive oil
With its superior health benefits and versatility, not to mention its swag of local and international awards, Australian extra virgin olive oil is among the world’s finest. I recall a time when I was interviewing Italian-born chef Stefano Manfredi and he explained that when he and his family arrived in Australia in the 1960s his mum would have to go to the chemist shop to buy olive oil. In a specimen bottle, no less. It just shows how far we’ve come in our knowledge and appreciation of food and ingredients. These days, we’ve become the second biggest consumer of olive oil per capita in the world outside of the Mediterranean. Clearly, we love the stuff! What’s more, we now produce top quality olive oil and heaps of it. Yep, even better than that produced by Spain, Italy and Greece, the traditional home of olive oil.   We’ve officially been producing olive oil since about 1870, but it is only in the past 30 years or so that we’ve gotten serious about it. We now have over 900 producers who manage to squeeze out over 20 million litres of olive oil. And not just any olive oil, but top grade extra virgin olive oil. What’s the difference?  These days, your average supermarket shelf is brimming with different types of olive oil: extra virgin, virgin, light, pure, etc.  So which one is best?  At the top of the olive oil hierarchy is extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Fresh and healthy, it is squeezed straight from the olive. Unlike in the production of other oils where chemical and heat extraction is used, EVOO does not undergo any refinement or extraction processes using chemicals or heat. This means that of all the mainstream cooking oils, EVOO has the highest level of monounsaturated fats and retains more antioxidants than any other oil.  Health benefits “Published research shows that no other food comes close to extra virgin olive oil for the prevention and treatment of chronic disease.” This is a quote from Mary Flynn, Senior Research Dietitian and Associate Professor of Medicine at Brown University in the USA. Her research has uncovered the fact that EVOO is associated with a range of health benefits related to heart health and weight control, and it has anti-ageing and anti-inflammatory properties.  The reason your heart will thank you for consuming EVOO is down to those all-important antioxidants. They help increase good cholesterol and decrease bad, reduce the risk of developing blocked arteries and reduce blood pressure. We’ve all heard that a Mediterranean diet with its abundance of nuts, fruits, legumes, wholegrains and fish is one of the healthiest choices you can make. But its benefits also lie in the fact that EVOO is the main source of fat in this lifestyle. And people who enjoy a Mediterranean diet have been shown to have a lower body weight, which they can maintain for longer. EVOO also helps you to feel fuller for longer, another factor in helping to keep your weight stable. Those incredible antioxidants also come into play when it comes to slowing down the ageing process. Antioxidants such as vitamin E help prevent cell damage caused by free radicals, which contributes to making the internal ageing process slower.  And with inflammation now being implicated in a range of diseases, the good news for EVOO consumers is it contains a natural anti-inflammatory compound called oleocanthal. Fresh is best To get the most out of your EVOO, you want it to be as fresh as possible. Obviously, Australian oils are able to get to market here more quickly than imported oils. What’s more, the standards for Australian EVOO are extremely strict and as many as nine out of 10 imported olive oils fail to make the grade. So now you’ve narrowed your choice down to Australian EVOO, you want a company that uses the finest olives, picked and pressed at the perfect time. You also want to go for oils that are cold pressed within 4–6 hours of harvesting the olives. The harvest date is also important for gauging longevity, as you should use your oil within 12–14 months of harvesting and within 4–6 weeks of opening. But how do you know which brands are the best quality? Look for the Premium Certified Australian EVOO Logo. Buying Australian doesn’t mean missing out on range, as local producers are having great success with a huge choice of olive varieties. You’ll even see a lot of Australian EVOO named after the variety they’re made from. Take for instance Cobram Estate’s Ultra Premium Hojiblanca Extra Virgin Olive Oil, made from and named after the Spanish Hojiblanca variety and winner of the 2017 Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales President’s Medal.   The great cooking myths There’s been a persistent myth in the cooking world that heating olive oil releases harmful toxins. On the contrary,EVOO is very stable to cook with and it’s all down to those antioxidants again. The point to consider is smoke point, and given EVOO has a smoke point between 200 and 215ºC, which is above that of standard home cooking temperatures for hot and cold cooking, it’s a safe, healthy choice.  Also, don’t believe the myth that can’t use EVOO in certain pots and pans. You can use it in any pot or pan you choose, as well as on the hotplate.  So next time you’re standing in front of the oils in the supermarket, there’s only one choice – premium quality, certified Australian extra virgin olive oil. Click here to shop Cobram Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oils. 
The Real Healthy Oils
Words by Joanna McMillan on 22 Jun 2018
I’m a firm believer in nutritious food also being delicious. Food is more than just a collection of nutrients our bodies need. It is also, for most of us, enormously pleasurable. And that’s one reason behind the success of the Mediterranean Diet. Not only is it hailed as one of the healthiest in the world, but it is also one of the tastiest and most social.  The Mediterranean Diet has an impressive list of potential benefits. It is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, several types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In short, it appears to be good for the whole body, including the heart and brain. There are many aspects of the diet thought to contribute to these health benefits. It is characterised by plentiful vegetables, herbs and spices, fruit, legumes and wholegrains. They eat seafood, poultry and eggs regularly, but have red meat less often. They enjoy moderate amounts of dairy foods, principally as cheese and yoghurt (both fermented foods). Bread is a staple, but rather than slathering it in butter, they dip it in extra virgin olive oil. They enjoy wine, but don’t binge drink. A slippery star The use of extra virgin olive oil extends beyond bread and plays a starring role. Since Roman times, extra virgin olive oil has been used to cook, drizzle and flavour food. And while we are on the subject, let’s put to bed the idea that you cannot cook with extra virgin olive oil. Recent studies have shown that extra virgin olive oil is very stable in cooking, even at high temperatures. In fact, it is far safer than common cooking oils, including grapeseed, brown rice and canola oils. The Romans and Greeks believed extra virgin olive oil to be therapeutic and modern science is confirming this belief. In the famous PREDIMED study, they gave three diets – a control group on a low-fat diet and two Mediterranean Diet groups, one supplemented with nuts and another with extra virgin olive oil. They followed the groups for almost five years. Over 7000 people started the trial at a high risk of cardiovascular disease. In these people in particular the results were pretty spectacular. Those consuming the most extra virgin olive oil had a 35% lower risk! In fact, for every 10g of extra virgin olive oil they consumed daily, the risk of cardiovascular disease dropped by 10%. Winning hearts and minds So, what’s so special about this oil? Firstly, it is one of only two common oils to come from a fruit (the other being avocado oil). This makes it very different to seed oils. Where seed oils have to be refined with heat, high pressure and/or chemicals to make them edible, extra virgin olive oil is literally the juice squeezed from fresh olives. This gentle process brings with it an array of natural chemicals found in the fruit including polyphenols known to have protective antioxidant effects. One of them is called oleocanthal and this is what gives extra virgin olive oil that wonderful peppery taste. Oleocanthal is anti-inflammatory, working in much the same way as a low dose of ibuprofen. This makes it helpful in managing conditions such as osteoarthritis and in reducing the chronic level of inflammation that leads to diseases including heart disease. In the brain, it has been shown to protect neurons and this may be the mechanism by which extra virgin olive oil rich diets reduce the risk of diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. And in the lab, it has been shown to have anti-cancer effects. The oil is also rich in a chemical called squalene. This concentrates in the skin where it helps to protect cells from sun damage, perhaps explaining the lower incidence of skin cancer in those following traditional Mediterranean diets. Where it gets really interesting is that not only are these beneficial compounds remarkably stable during cooking, the classic combination of extra virgin olive oil and vegetables also increases your body’s uptake of all the antioxidants present. Around the middle If you’re worried about gaining weight by being liberal with extra virgin olive oil, rest assured it may actually help with weight control. In general, a Mediterranean dietary pattern is associated with better weight control, especially less harmful fat around the waist. One Spanish study found those who consumed extra virgin olive oil compared to sunflower oil were more than a third less likely to be obese. That might be due to a compound produced when we digest the type of fat present in extra virgin olive oil called OEA (oleoyethanolamide). OEA induces satiety and seems to help us to eat less later. All up, extra virgin is pretty remarkable and when consumed regularly as part of a Mediterranean style, plant-rich diet, there is solid evidence this delivers us many health benefits. The ‘extra virgin’ is key to note. Bottles labelled ‘olive oil’, ‘pure olive oil’ or ‘light olive oil’ have been refined or blended and this results in a loss of those fabulously protective plant chemicals. Fortunately, in Australia we have some of the finest extra virgin olive oil in the world and our own Cobram Estate is one such example. They were recognised as the producer of the healthiest extra virgin olive oil at the 2017 Health & Food EVOO Awards in Spain and more recently were voted by CHOICE as the best extra virgin olive oil from 23 supermarket oils. We should be most proud of our Australian olive oil industry and I urge you to give them your support. Your health and your taste buds will thank you too.
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