Castillo de Canena: Award-Winning Olive Oil from the South of Spain

Castillo de Canena: Award-Winning Olive Oil from the South of Spain

Hannah Howard

From the Vañó family comes Castillo de Canena, an icon of excellence, innovation and sustainability.

Looking down from a hot air balloon in Jaén—I was once lucky enough to do this—is surreal. The landscape is full of olive groves as far as the eye can see, in every direction, hills rolling gently, grids of majestic olive trees with their silvery leaves blowing in the early morning breeze.

Situated in the northeast of Andalusia in southern Spain, Jaén is an olive oil mecca. It accounts for almost half of Spain’s olive oil production, and a fifth of the entire world’s. One of its gorgeous estates, nestled between the mountains of Cazorla, Segura y Mágina, is home to Castillo de Canena. About 5,000 acres of centuries old olive groves surround the Vañó family’s 16th century castle in the foothills of the Sierra Mágina. The land has belonged to the Vañó family since 1780, and today sister and brother team Rosa and Paco Vañó lead the company. They have won countless awards, accolades, prestige, and a devoted following for their fine, flavorful extra-virgin olive oils.

María Parias Fernández de Heredia, the UK & America Export Manager at Castillo de Canena, attributes their success to a combination of “the terroir, the best agriculture practices, the most advanced machinery, and our care and passion.” It’s a winning formula. In 2020, for the eighth year in a row, the prestigious international Flos Olei guide chose their Family Reserve Picual as the best in the world, awarding them the highest possible score (100/100), and for three years in a row has included them in its Hall of Fame. These are two of more than 100 international awards who have honored Castillo de Canena for their innovation and quality.

A Castle to Inspire Wonder

The brand’s namesake Castle of Canena was built by the Arabs on the site of a Roman settlement. It was converted into a fortress for the Calatrava Order during the Reconquista, and served this purpose until it was acquired in 1538 by Francisco de los Cobos, Secretary to Charles V. He transformed the Castle into a Palace, where the emperor himself stayed. The Castle was declared a National Monument in 1931 and later restored and preserved by the Vañó family.

“Rosa and Paco celebrate Christmas at the castle every year, and they both got married there,” says Fernández de Heredia. “The Castle is our ‘flagship store,’ where we host our customers, importers, chefs and media and explain and share the way we live and work.”

Quality Above All Else

From selecting perfectly ripe olives to harvesting, the entire production process is carefully controlled—as is transportation, pressing, and bottling. The Vañós combine many generations of tradition with an open-minded, forward-thinking focus on innovation and sustainability.

Castillo de Canena crafts a wide range of extra-virgin olive oils, from their early harvest monovarietals to thoughtfully and uniquely flavored oils like Oak Smoke Arbequina, Arbequina & Harissa, and Arbequina & Plankton. Their latest is Arbequino Amontillado, young Arbequina extra virgin olive oil infused with complex aged Amontillado wine. The Arbequina extra virgin olive oil is finished in a 250-litre American oak barrel from Bodegas Lustau that has been used for over half a century of ageing, and the finished product is wonderful drizzled over roasted fish or chicken or sauteed mushrooms.

“We always try to develop products that are new to the market and give some fresh air to the olive oil shelves,” explains Fernández de Heredia. They create limited offer, prestigious collections like their First Day of Harvest Picual, a result of the season's first 24 hours of milling. Each year the labels for the First Day of Harvest oils are redesigned by guest designers— most recently, rally driver Carlos Sainz dreamt up the label for the 15th year of the collection. The oil is intensely fruity with fresh vegetable notes of green grass. It’s full of complexity and beautifully balanced, ideal for bitter green salads, soup and stew, or rich aged cheeses.

A Deep Commitment to Sustainability

Rosa and Paco’s father Don Luis Vañó started thinking seriously about sustainability many decades before sustainability became a buzzword. He developed the super modern underground irrigation system and upgraded the company’s mill. At 94, he’s still offering wisdom and advice to the family business. In 2010, Rosa and Paco created the Luis Vañó Research Prize, a competition open to all original scientific and technological research in the field of olive cultivation in his honor.

“At Castillo de Canena we nurture the tree’s natural life cycle, combining traditional wisdom with cutting-edge technology and scrupulous respect for the environment,” says Fernández de Heredia. Their groves are equipped with drip fertigation systems under Integrated Production (Producción Integrada or A.P.I.) certification, guaranteeing practices that respect the natural environment and operate under strict parameters.

123 acres of Castillo de Canena are devoted to Biodynamic Agriculture, certified by Demeter. They have beehives (bees act as bio-indicators of an insecticide-free environment and aid in the pollination process) and 400 sheep (their manure is used to produce compost and maintain cover vegetation). The goal is to enrich the ecosystem and foster biodiversity, leaving the land healthier and richer.

Solar energy generates all of the electricity at Castillo de Canena, and there are several drought stress control points in the groves to maximize use of water. “We continuously move forward in research: tracing our carbon footprint (certified since 2011), hydric footprint (certified since 2013), investigating organic crops, new varieties in our area, and combining the knowledge of the most prestigious scientists with the master olive experts in the region,” according to Fernández de Heredia.

Castillo de Canena works in partnership with universities, NGOs, and agriculture institutes to improve their process and create the most sustainable products possible. It’s all in service to a future of thriving land and healthy, delicious extra-virgin olive oil.