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Life

The Cobram Estate story

The Murray River flows slowly through the ancient floodplains south-east of Mildura, drifting almost imperceptibly under a baking blue sky. Egrets and cormorants drift with the current, watched from the banks by sleepy kangaroos, while bright flashes of blue kingfishers dart between the trees.

The land here is distinctly Australian, and some of the nation’s most celebrated and productive agricultural country, home to stonefruit, citrus, almonds, grapes and sheep-grazing. But a dynamic and fast-growing industry is transforming the region. Over the last two decades, vast groves of silver-leafed olive trees have been planted, breathing new life into the local economy, and changing the way Australians cook.

Most significant of these farms is Boundary Bend, whose Cobram Estate brand is Australia’s leading extra virgin olive oil, and deserving winner of the RAS President’s Medal, the pre-eminent prize for agriculture. The company’s story is by turns inspiring, and a keen insight into the opportunities that exist when inspiration is interwoven with a determination towards excellence.

A friendship forms

In the early 1990s, Rob McGavin and Paul Riordan were students at Marcus Oldham Agricultural College in Geelong. It’s a small campus, with barely more than 100 students, and while the boys were a few years apart, through the course of their studies, they formed a friendship that would underpin both their personal journeys and their professional careers.

Rob was studying agribusiness, and Paul undertook farm management, courses that addressed the operational concerns of livestock husbandry and horticulture, but are more focussed on economics. 

Despite his managerial leanings, after college, Rob decided to get dirt under his nails. He left behind the cattle-grazing he grew up with in Central Queensland, and instead chose an industry less susceptible to the tribulations of drought and the fluctuating value of the Australian dollar. With support from his parents, Rob set out for an adventure in wine production, buying a small farm at Renmark in South Australia’s Riverland with his wife Kate.

Although Kate’s family were grape-growers from Coonawarra, it was still a trial by fire as they set out to establish the vineyard, and before long were needing help. As luck (or fate) would have it, Paul was at a loose end. He moved to the farm, and their friendship and work relationship blossomed. In time, Kate introduced Paul to her friend Fiona, and before long the couples had established a close-knit group that continues 25 years later.

A story of growth

Viticulture, as many wine producers will attest, proved more complex than it seemed from a distance, and soon the team were considering ways to diversify. Paul had an interest in olive production, and could see the potential for a strong Australian industry. And so, knowing little about the practicalities of olives, they planted some test trees.

But farming olives required economies of scale to make the significant costs of planting and processing more profitable. So before long, Rob and Paul were keen to find a larger property and build a more substantial grove. At Boundary Bend they found a broad parcel of well-irrigated land with the right mix of sandy, well-drained soil. Coupled with long, hot summers that enable the olives to ripen and swell with oil, it was the ideal location for the next stage in their journey. 

In 1999, Rob and Paul planted their first 500 hectares, a sizeable but not overwhelming grove. Today the farm has more than 6500 hectares of olive trees stretching from one horizon to the other. They also have a second planting at Boort in central Victoria, a property they took over when its former owner, Timbercorp, went bankrupt. That process was challenging and nearly ended in the failure of Cobram Estate, and still carries some scars for everyone involved. For several weeks in 2009, Rob and Paul were unsure if the company, and the dreams they had invested in it, would survive.

Rob describes that moment as Dickensian, the best and worst of times. Yet in his endlessly optimistic way he prefers to characterise it as a difficult transformation that only made them and Cobram Estate stronger in the long run.

After some financial juggling, they acquired the grove and today it forms a significant part of their operation.

Capturing the dream

Cobram Estate produces remarkable extra virgin olive oil, and does so from a range of olive tree stock. Picual, Hojiblanca, Coraneki, Arbequina and Coratina are the five principle varietals they produce, but in all there are nearly 30 types grown. 

And this is one of the keys to Cobram Estate’s success – a diversification that enables consistently impeccable quality. 

There are three central skills required to master the production of olive oil – growing pristine olives, pressing them with maximum efficiency, and then blending them. Rob and his team are dedicated to the idea that their customers value not only the flavour and nutrient density of the oil, but also the fact that it is the same delicious product year-round.

Achieving this can pose a significant challenge. All varietals have distinctive qualities of pungency, astringency, colour, aroma and macro-nutrients, but these naturally fluctuate each season. And so it is up to Leandro Ravetti, Cobram Estate’s Technical Director, to lead a team that splices and combines oils in precise fractions until Robust, Classic and Light flavour profiles are achieved.

Hojiblanca and Picual are also bottled as unique-varietal oils, offering consumers the same romance and nuances of experience as wine lovers find in the terroir of single-vineyard production.

These are remarkable products with which Australians have fallen in love. Not only are they exceptional oils, but Cobram Estate is also proudly Australian in an industry forced to compete against a tide of imported product.

 

Click here to shop Cobram Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oils. 

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Food
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. 
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The Essential Salad and Wine Matching Guide
Fresh flavour-filled salads to match your selection Celebrate fresh and flavourful salads perfect to serve in the warmer months! There’s no limit to what we can call a salad these days and the idea that it needs to be served cold is a distant memory. The best combination of ingredients is seasonally-driven and matched with a wine with the appropriate weight and texture. Red drinkers are not left out, but opt for a lighter, more aromatic variety served with warm salads that include meat. Don’t forget that the dressing is an important consideration, with the light and zesty styles best matched with lighter wines and the creamier options best paired with wines with a bit more weight and appealing acidity. Light and aromatic whites Trent Mannell loves whipping up a simple salad when friends drop by and the summer salad with asparagus and goat’s curd is a perfect choice. When it comes to wine matching, he explains, “While the beauty of this salad is its simplicity, it also includes quite strong flavours in the asparagus and goat’s curd. Offset them with a light, aromatic white like Sauvignon Blanc , Riesling or Vermentino .” Medium weight and textural whites Keith Tulloch loves his whites with texture and find rocket, pear and walnut salad with blue cheese dressing a perfect match for this style of wine. “With its beautiful textures, this salad needs a white wine match that’s full of texture too”, he says. “I recommend Pinot G, Fiano, Arneis or Marsanne.” Fuller bodied whites Entertaining a group can be stress free when you serve up a dish like King salmon with warm Romesco salad . This is one of Adam Walls’ go-to dishes and for a wine match, he says, “Salmon calls for a fuller-bodied white, as do the ingredients in the Romesco salad. I recommend a classic Chardonnay or Verdelho , or for something different, a Viognier or Roussanne .” Light to medium weight and savoury reds Red lovers don’t miss out when it comes to summer salads, and Dave Mavor loves adapting the classic match of duck and Pinot Noir for the warmer months with warm duck breast and cauliflower salad and his favourite Pinot. But, he explains, “You could also try Grenache & GSM blends , Nero d’Avola , Sangiovese or Tempranillo .”
Food
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.”
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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