Chilean Pedro Parra is the first terroir specialist outside of France. Amanda Barnes meets with him to find out a bit more about Chilean terroir and Parra’s journey underground.
Whatever you call Pedro Parra, don’t call him Dr. Terroir. “I hate that name!” he says about the nickname he’s unwillingly accrued. “I promise I won’t refer to you as Dr Terroir in the article then,” I offer, afraid I’ve touched a nerve. “No, do! Write that I hate it so people will stop calling me that!”
Chile’s terroir specialist, the first in the Americas to do a PhD in terroir, is not what you would expect. When you think of PhDs, soil profiles and specialists your imagination concocts an image of scientists surrounded by test tubes and beakers. Parra is anything but. “Terroir is more about intuition,” he explains, “it is not important for a wine whether it is planted over granite or clay etc… The important thing is to taste the wine. The wine should talk more than the person.” In fact his first approach to consulting for a winery usually involves drinking wine over dinner with the owner to work out their taste in wine. Then he’ll find out if the terroir can produce it.
Parra’s maverick approach to terroir and the importance of tasting the wine throughout the process has given him a legion of disciples across the globe and he is one of a handful of terroir specialists inspiring a new generation of winemakers. Chile, and the New World in general, is shifting its winemaking focus from the winery to the mud in the vineyards. This is the ‘rise of terroir’ and it’s the latest buzzword for wine drinkers.
Parra explains that this is an exciting time for Chile. Although the exploration of terroir is relatively new (“we only have ten years compared to France’s 500”) he believes that new winemakers are being born with a notion of terroir deep inside them. “The new generation in Chile is fantastic, they are born with terroir in here,” he says motioning towards his head, “the next step is to put terroir in the heart. The new generation will bring it from the heart.”
Parra, who was born in Concepcion, rather fell into the profession by chance. He had studied forestry but hated it and so started working in precision agriculture technologies. After getting married he realized he needed to start earning more money to support a family and so decided to get a PhD. By luck, coincidence and “some very supportive friends” he ended up in France studying with the great masters of terroir (and the only other students of terroir in the world). It wasn’t a labor of love at first, rather a labor for his love – working hard to improve his earning ability and prove himself as a worthy husband. After years of studying though, it finally clicked. He began to love wine and started studying out of passion to learn more. “I wanted to understand everything, it wasn’t about my PhD. It was because I love it. That changed my way of seeing the problem.” He says it took him his PHD into the science of terroir to learn that terroir was not a science at all. “Terroir is about interpretation and passion and patience.”
And patience terroir studies certainly do take. Typically Parra will consult to a winery for a few years to help “open the window” so their own winemakers can understand what’s going on below the ground and how that might affect what is happening above it. The makeup of the soil (amounts of clay, sand, stones, limestone, oxygenation, root depth) will affect the tannins, aromas and minerality. Digging out large clay pits to profile the soil is essential, but so is tasting the wine that comes from it – year after year. “Today if you look as a scientist you can sometimes see a bad terroir but the wine is fantastic,” he says, “there’s always a lot of surprises.” Parra estimates you can pretty much guess the sort of wine a terroir will produce nine times out of ten, but there is always that 10% which just surprises you completely. He is the first to admit that in the past he has underestimated new vine growing spots that have since yielded great results. This is what makes terroir fun and, for terroir hunters around the world, addictive.
Chile in this sense is a massive playground for winemakers. With a huge diversity ranging from coastal climates to volcanic rock to vineyards at altitude, Chile has a huge kaleidoscope of terroirs to play with. Wines of Chile recently launched a marketing campaign differentiating three main terroir regions of Chile: Coastal, Cordillera and Andes; and while these three still encompass an enormous spectrum of different terroirs, Parra agrees that – for now – the message needs to be kept simple for consumers. “In Chile the Coastal regions and Andes are very unique,” comments Parra adding that in the next decade the focus needs to be on communicating the main regions. “Then little by little we can explain very special places.”
Parra believes there are many special places in Chile. He talks passionately about the “stoney, deep volcanic soils” of the Andes regions which create great volume in the mouth which he particularly likes for Chardonnay, and has favorite spots in coastal regions as well as Cordillera regions for other wines and terroirs. “Chile has so much diversity we can focus on lots of situations,” he comments.
However for him, what really counts is the culture surrounding the terroir. “Terroir can be similar around the world but the culture and way it is cultivated is different,” he explains. One of the regions that is really exciting him at the moment is Itata, a coastal range 450kms south of Santiago. “Old vines were planted by monks and farmers 200 years ago, it’s a fantastic place,” he says with eyes lit up like a young child. “You will see a poor farmer working with a horse to improve the soil as his father taught him. This is what wine is about: passion and terroir. It is unique, you may or may not like it, it is made by a man without teeth to sell to local people – but they are producing outstanding wines.”
“I have my own conclusions about what is a good terroir for wine. It depends on how man can play the tune between these things.”
Parra has become the band leader for many winemakers across the New World and his tune is certainly a welcome one in Chile whose new generation of winemakers is more and more excited by the rich foundations of their native land. When it comes to Chilean terroir, one has just barely begun to scratch the surface, and having international expert Parra at the helm of many terroir investigations is a very exciting prospect.
To explore different terroirs, visit our pages on the different wine regions of Chile