Pedro Parra: breaking new ground
- Friday 8 January 2010
Pedro Parra is crouching in a hole with a small pick hammer, chipping away at the soil.
‘Pure granitic,’ he says, lifting up a lump of pink rock. ‘The topsoil is unimportant; it’s the rocks and stones that count. Without them there is no terroir.’
The idea that vineyard location matters, that wines can display a sense of place, is still comparatively new in the New World. It wasn’t that long ago that a Californian producer proclaimed ‘soil is dirt’, implying that, provided you had enough water, you could plant grapes anywhere and get the same result.
Anyone who still believes such nonsense should spend a day with Parra, moving between
his oblong-shaped calicatas (trenches). Parra is a self-proclaimed terroir specialist, one of a handful of such people in the world, and he is changing the way Chileans (and many Argentinians) think about their vineyards.
‘If you map your soils properly,’ he says, ‘you can choose the varieties you plant there. You can pick the grapes at the right moment and you can vinify them in the right way.’ The results are dramatic. I did a tasting at Viña Ventisquero, one of Parra’s clients, comparing Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs and Carmeneres from different blocks of Colchagua’s Apalta zone.
I was amazed. Altitude, clay content and the percentage of rocks in the soil had a
marked impact on the character and concentration of each wine. ‘In the Old World, the differences in plots are even more dramatic,’ he says. ‘It either works or it doesn’t. In Chile, it always works, but more or less well, depending on terroir.’
Despite his surname – the Spanish word for grapevine – Parra was not destined for a career in wine. He was born into a family of lawyers in the coastal city of Concepción, well south of Chile’s major vineyard areas. He was educated at the Alliance Française, studied forestry at the local university and then spent two years as a jazz saxophonist. His big break came
when his uncle, a director of his old university, offered him a job researching ‘precision agriculture’, using maps and satellite photography.
He was clearly good at it – later that same year, in 1997, he got a grant from the French Embassy in Chile to go to Montpellier University to do a master’s degree. For 18 months Parra studied agronomy and soil types; he also became interested in wine. Back in Chile, almost no one wanted to hear Parra’s barely formed ideas about terroir.
Except for Enrique Tirado, one of Concha y Toro’s winemakers, who was ‘the first to believe in my work’, commissioning Parra to carry out a study of the Alto Maipo Valley. It wasn’t enough to sustain a career though, so he returned to France to do a PhD at the Institut Agronomique National in Paris.
Carving his niche
Parra immersed himself in soils, geology, geomorphology, climate, viticulture and
oenology, and spent weeks walking through the great vineyard regions of France, trying to understand what made them special. He worked for the terroir consultant Pierre Becheler in Bordeaux and was introduced to the mysteries of Burgundy by Vosne-Romanée producer
Towards the end of his studies in France, Parra bumped into Marcelo Retamal, the dynamic young Chilean winemaker from De Martino, who was an old friend. He also met Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle and Casa Lapostolle’s consultant, Michel Rolland. More important still, Parra was introduced to Aurelio Montes when the great Chilean winemaker was invited to Paris to comment on his PhD thesis on Maipo Valley terroirs.
‘Aurelio is an amazing guy, who taught me a lot about Chilean terroirs,’ says Parra. ‘He has the time to listen to me and respect what I have to say – that’s rare in Chile. ‘A large part of my job is making people change their mind.’ That means persuading them to plant vineyards away from Chile’s traditional alluvial terraces, which Parra describes as ‘very good for Carmenere, very bad for everything else. St-Emilion, Côte-Rôtie and Burgundy are what they are because of slopes and rocks. The same applies in Chile.’
Parra was beginning to develop a name for himself. As well as De Martino, Concha y Toro and Montes, he was employed by Matetic, working on its EQ Syrah. Parra had arrived back in Chile at just the right time. ‘In 2004 Elqui, Limarí and Cauquenes were barely on the map.
Most of the plantings in Chile were in flat zones, rather than on slopes. People were growing grapes in places that weren’t right for viticulture. My job is to inspire them to plant grapes they would never have dared to plant, in places they would never have dared to invest in.’
Six years later, Parra’s client list is still growing.
It now includes Ventisquero, Undurraga, Errázuriz (for Seña and Viñedo Chadwick), Perez Cruz, Koyle and MontGras in Chile, as well as Finca Flichman, Renacer, Doña Paula and Zuccardi in Argentina. He could take on more work, but doesn’t want to. ‘I’m not interested in money. I work really hard for 10 days a month and take the rest of the time to read, be with my kids and play the saxophone.’
That may be about to change; he’s now a producer himself. With two French winemakers, Liger-Belair and François Massoc, Parra is about to plant Pinot Noir and Riesling in Bío-Bío, near his home in Concepción. He’s also involved in a 5ha (hectare) Pinot vineyard in Leyda with leading Chilean winemaker Alvaro Espinoza.
It’s all part of a natural evolution. Parra has been making wine on the side since 2004, buying grapes from all over Chile, especially Alto Maipo and ‘very, high Cachapoal’. Under the Aristos label, Parra, Massoc and Liger-Belair make a few barrels of Chardonnay, a Bordeaux blend and a blend of Syrah and Petite Sirah, from purchased fruit.
But Pinot Noir is his dream grape, partly because of his love of Burgundy. The plan is to make three different Pinots in Concepción, two from different granitic soils and one from schist. ‘We’re going to make 4,000 cases, Burgundy-style. The wines will be expensive,’ he says, ‘but only because they will be expensive to make.’
Will they be worth it? Parra thinks so. Vital to the region’s success, he explains, is cloud cover – also key in Burgundy. Winemaking is never going to be Parra’s day job, however successful the wines prove to be. He is one of only eight terroir consultants in the world; the other seven live in France.
‘Terroir is about feeling. That’s the biggest problem with what I do. People always think you’re bluffing – they keep saying ‘prove it’.” You can have the same statistics from two different terroirs, but one will be superior. In the end, you have to look at the land.’
This belief in ‘feeling’ sounds rather French to me, but Parra says that’s only part of the story. ‘The French have some great wines and terroirs but they don’t understand why because they’ve have never had to ask themselves the question. I’ve tried to get permission to dig a few calicatas in Burgundy and people aren’t interested. If they did allow it, I have to do it with my hammer rather than a machine, but why not?’