Reinventing the “Flying Winemaker”

Having spent the last decade as a terroir consultant to some of the world’s top winemakers, Pedro Parra is bringing his expertise home to one of the oldest wine regions in Chile.

I wake up to a densely fogged-in morning, load into my rented Chevy Aveo and drive north, along and across the wide Bíobío River toward Concepción. It’s June—winter in Chile—and I’m wearing two sweaters and blasting an R.E.M. marathon over the heater I have turned up to high.

After 50-some miles and about as much Michael Stipe as I can deal with, I spot Pedro Parra’s grey Mazda SUV off to the side of the Autopista del Itata. I pause behind him and in tandem we swerve back onto the highway toward the vineyards he works with in Guarilihue. The closer we get, the thicker the tall pines become. He stops in a truck yard and I abandon my low-rider of a rental.

“I call this road ‘the grand cru of Itata,’” says Parra, who is best known as a terroir consultant to some of the world’s top winemakers, including luminaries like Burgundy’s Jean-Marc Roulot and Louis-Michel Liger-Belair. But I’m here to talk about his own wines, which he’s been making since 2012. We jump out of the truck into vineyards that have been farmed by the owner Juan Carlos Torres‘ family for three generations. The brick-red dirt crunches loudly under our feet; it’s loaded with pea-sized crystals of quartz and granite, giving the hillside the appearance of a brioche bun sprinkled with pearl sugar.

The vineyard, situated on a 250-million-year-old Paleozoic mountain, is located in one of the oldest wine areas in Chile, with vines—red país and white muscat—that date back some 300 years. País, a grape that’s been grown in Chile since Spanish conquistadors brought it over in the 16th century, is beginning to garner international attention for the juicy, low-alcohol wines it can produce. And winemakers who have focused on the grape, like Roberto Henríquez and Louis-Antoine Luyt, have become symbols of the New Chile, a movement that hinges on eschewing international grape varieties and making wines that are easy-drinking and evocative of place. It’s not dissimilar from the stylistic changes that have taken place in California, and across the globe. But Parra’s only just warming up to país.

Here in tiny Guarilihue, in the southern Itata Valley, cinsault is more widely planted than país. Parra loves the cinsault, especially from Guarilihue’s granitic soilsIt’s what landed him here, in a vineyard with a composition Parra insists is very similar to that of Cornas, the crown jewel of France’s northern Rhône. “I think Itata is a diamond,” he says.

He would know. For the past ten years, Parra, who has a PhD in terroir, has been using electrical conductivity technology (originally created for the mining industry), vigor maps and topographical studies to give local growers and winemakers details about soil content, and the potential of the land they have to work with. While he grew up in nearby Concepción, it’s this intimate knowledge of soil types in premier wine-growing regions around the world that ultimately led him to Itata; with its combination of granite-dense soil, Atlantic breezes across easy slopes and century-old vines, the valley is a terroir expert’s wonderland.

Compared to the so-called “flying winemakers” of the ’90s and 2000s, Parra might best be considered a “flying terroirist” for a new paradigm that favors place over style. Decades ago, consultants like Bordeaux’s Michel Rolland and Tuscany’s Alberto Antonini (amongst others, to a lesser degree), became household names for their work, and for the global style of wine they helped define. Wineries flaunted their Rolland-designed bottlings, garnering high scores from Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate, while a growing contingent of drinkers questioned their homogeneity—something that helped provoke today’s swing toward lighter, more terroir-specific wines.

But there is nothing homogenous about what Parra is doing. His focus is on helping winemakers better understand the soil on which their vines are planted, in order to best express place—and his work in distinct terroirs around the world is undeniably informing his work at home in Chile.

“Geology is the same all over the world, so all the expressions of the granite that I found in Chile, I will find the same in Spain or France,” says Parra. Over the six years that he’s been working on his Parra Family Wines, he’s acquired a network of encouraging winemakers internationally through his consulting work, like Dani Landi at Comando G in Gredos, Spain; Felipe Ramirez, a fellow Chilean who is working at Chapter 24 in Oregon’s Willamette Valley; and Jorge Monzón at Dominio del Águila in Spain’s Ribera del Duero.

The more Parra delves into the winemaking side, the more he finds that legends in the industry are still looking for answers as to why wines taste the way they do. Even Jean-Marc Roulot, who makes some of the world’s most sought-after expressions of Meursault, desires more understanding. “Roulot knows that the wine is very good, we all do,” says Parra. “But at one moment in your life, you start wondering why.” He, too, is in search of an answer to the same question—one that science can’t quite give.

As the morning haze starts to lift, we walk down to the 100-year-old winery that Parra is in the process of renovating. The corrugated steel-roofed building leans into the hillside that forms one of its walls. There are vineyard workers burning pruned vines on the hilltop by the open-air destemmer, fermentation tanks on the level below and the aging room down at the hill’s bottom, where he stores barrels from Bordeaux, alongside old cement tanks and a century-old foudre that were part of the old winery.

Parra brings a box of Zalto glasses down from the truck and perches a selection of samples on the step between the fermentation and barrel rooms. He pours tastes of 2017 cinsault from four different vineyards, all contenders for his 100-percent cinsault Imaginador bottling, one of two wines, alongside his Pencopolitano blend, that he currently makes. The first cinsault, from the vineyard we’d stood in earlier, is serious and linear, while the other three, sourced from other parts of Itata, are on a spectrum that runs from earthy, purple fruit to peppery cranberries to delicate and perfumed in a savory, veering-on-herbal way. Up until this point, Imaginador has been his only cinsault-focused bottling, but in tasting these individual plots, it’s understandable that he’s considering bottling one or two of them individually. 

It’s getting late and I have a 275-mile drive to Santiago ahead of me, so I follow Parra back up the hill to his truck. I swipe a handful of Guarilihue soil and shove it my pocket while he’s busy rattling off directions: “Follow the signs to Ñipas, Nueva Aldea—you’ll follow the Itata River.” Parra gives me a big enveloping hug before I’m back in my Aveo and turn down the music, watching as the hill recedes from view.

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