Pedro Parra is crouching in a hole with a small hammer in his hand, chipping away at the soil like a demented sculptor. “Granitic, pure grantic,” he says, lifting a lump of pink igneous rock above his shoulder. “The topsoil is unimportant; it’s the rocks and the stones that count. Without those two things there is no terroir.”
The idea that vineyard location matters, that wines can display a recognisable sense of place, is still comparatively recent in the New World. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that a Californian producer proclaimed that “soil is dirt”, implying that, provided you had enough water, you could plant grapes pretty much anywhere and get the same result. Anyone who still believes such nonsense should spend a day with Señor Parra, moving between his oblong-shaped, subterranean “calicatas”.
Parra is a self-proclaimed terroir specialist, one of only a handful of such people in the world, and he is changing the way Chileans (and a growing number of Argentineans) think about their vineyards. “If you map your soils properly,” he says, “it means 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 can be dramatic. I recently did a tasting at Viña Ventisquero, one of Parra’s clients, comparing Syrahs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Carmenères from different blocks of the Apalta zone in Colchagua, and I was amazed by what I tasted. 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 between plots are even more dramatic,” he says. “It either works or it doesn’t work. Here in Chile, it always works, but maybe more or less well, depending on terroir.”
Despite his surname — the Spanish word for a grapevine – Parra was not destined for a career in wine. He was born into a family of lawyers in the coastal city of Concepción, some way south of Chile’s major vineyard areas. He was educated at the Alliance Française — which was to come in useful later in life — and went to the local university to study forestry, a subject that bored him. “You plant the tree and 20 years later you come back and cut it down,” he says. “It was far too simple for me.”
Disillusioned with forestry, he spent two years working as a jazz saxophonist post- degree, trying to sound like John Coltrane. 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, because later that same year, in 1997, he received a grant from the French embassy in Chile to go to Montpellier University to do a master’s degree. For a year and a half, Parra studied agronomy and soil types; he also began to take an interest in wine.
Back in Chile, Parra discovered that almost no one was interested in hearing his barely formed ideas about terroir. The exception was Enrique Tirado, one of Concha y Toro’s winemakers, who was “the first person to believe in my work”, commissioning Parra to carry out a study of the Alto Maipo Valley. That wasn’t even to sustain a career, however, so he took the decision to go back to France to do a PhD at the prestigious Institut Agronomique National in Paris.
Parra immersed himself in the study of geology, geomorphology, soils, climate, viticulture and oenology. He also 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 the Vosne-Romanée producer Louis Michel Lige Belair, both excellent teachers.
Towards the end of his studies in France, Parra bumped into Marcelo Retamal, the dynamic young winemaker from De Martino, who was an old friend from back home. He also met the owner of Casa Lapostolle and was invited to dinner with the winery’s consultant, the globe-trotting Michel Rolland. More important still, Parra made the acquaintance of Aurelio Montes when the great Chilean winemaker was invited to Paris to comment on his doctoral thesis on the terroirs of the Maipo Valley.
“Aurelio is an amazing guy, who taught me a lot about Chilean terroirs” says Parra. “He’s in his sixties now, but he has the time to listen to me and to respect what I have to say, and that’s rare in Chile. A large part of my job is about making people change their minds.” That means persuading them to plant vineyards away from Chile’s traditional alluvial terraces, described by Parra as “very good for Carmenère and very bad for everything else. Saint Emilion, Côte Rôtie and Burgundy are all 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 stunning EQ Syrah. Parra had arrived back in Chile at just the right time. “In 2004, places like Elqui, Limarí and Caucenes 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 where they would never have dared to invest.”
Six years later, his client list is still growing and now includes Ventisquero, Undurraga, Errázuriz (for Seña and Viñedo Chadwick), Perez Cruz, Koyle and Mont Gras in Chile, as well as Finca Flichman, Renacer, Doña Paula and Zuccardi in Argentina. Parra says that he could take on more work, but doesn’t want to. “I’m not interested in money, to tell you the truth. I work really hard for 10 days a month and take the rest of the time off to read, be with my kids and play the saxophone.”
That may be about to change, however, as he has become a wine producer himself, switching, as it were, between the roles of poacher and gamekeeper. With two French winemakers, François Massoc and Louis Michel Liger Belair, he is about to plant Pinot Noir and Riesling in Bío Bío, close to his home in Concepción. He’s also involved in a 5 hectare Pinot vineyard in Leyda with leading Chilean winemaker Alvaro Espinosa.
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, very high Cachapoal”. Under the Aristos label, Parra, Massoc and Liger Belair currently make a few barrels of Chardonnay and two red blends, one in a Bordeaux-style, the other a combination of Syrah and Petite Sirah, from purchased fruit.
But Pinot Noir is his dream variety, 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 4000 cases, Burgundy-style. The wines will be expensive,” he says “but only because they will be expensive to make.” Will they be worth the pesos? Parra thinks so. The key to the success of the region, he explains, is cloud cover, one of the key features of 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, and the other seven all live in France. What about someone like Dr Richard Smart, I ask? “He’s a viticulturist,” counters Parra, “but he doesn’t work with terroir. Smart calculates everything, but terroir isn’t mathematical, it’s about feeling. You can have the same statistics from two completely different terroirs, but one of them will be superior. In the end, you have to look at the land. That’s the biggest problem with what I do. People always think you are bluffing. They keep saying ‘prove it, prove it’. ”
This belief in what Parra calls “feeling” sounds rather French to me, but he says that’s only part of the story. “The French have some great wines and terroirs but they don’t understand why because they have never had to ask themselves why. 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?”
Originally published in Decanter