Talking Terroir with Pedro Parra, PhD
All photos by Christine Campbell
Pedro Parra is Chile’s preeminent wine terroir expert – scratch that – he is the wine worlds ‘go-to’ for all things rock and vine. With a career spanning over 15 years, Parra consults to clients across the globe – from Chile, Australia, Uruguay, Canada, France and the U.S.
I came to learn about Parra through a vineyard called Coolshanagh, based on the Naramata Bench in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia. There was something new and exciting about their wine – namely, their Chardonnay. I learned that Pedro Parra was the vineyard and terroir consultant to the Okanagan Crush Pad and the winery where Coolshanagh wine is made.
Fast forward to February 13, 2017 – at the Vancouver International Wine Festival, I had the opportunity to sit down with Parra and ask him what makes a specific terroir special, his thoughts on minerality and how vineyard owners can better understand their land.
Christine Campbell: I am a huge fan of Coolshanagh wine from the Naramata Bench. You have said that this vineyard site is one of the top 10 sites for Chardonnay in the world. What makes Coolshanagh so fantastic compared to other vineyard areas?
Pedro Parra: It all depends on the style of wine you want to do. You need favorable weather with a long growing season that gives balance and then you need a type of soil that brings tension to the minerality – that would be the top wine anyone can drink. You won’t find this type of situation in many places in the world. People know that limestone soils mix well with Chardonnay. Coolshanagh has a lot of limestone and a lot of stones. As well, there is great weather so they have the perfect combination. This is one part of the terroir - now you need the second.
CC: What is the second part of terroir?
PP: The human part. You need to plant it, farm it, develop it and then make the wine. But you can’t do that if you don’t have the right terroir. It takes time to know it, understand it, vinify it and grow it - little by little.
CC: How long does it take to develop a well-known and understood terroir?
PP: One generation - the vines need to grow and then it is about learning how to vinify the wine you have. It takes time to know who you are. How can you vinify wine if you don’t know what you like? So, it is about personal research on who you are and then going about learning how to make something you like to drink.
CC: Is it a blending of an excellent vineyard site and good weather along with the winemakers’ relation to the land and how well they know themselves?
PP: Yes, a winemaker needs to learn how to play the music. People can learn to read music but everyone has a different interpretation of that music – their own signature. It is the same with wine - it is very personal.
CC: Would say that viticulturalists need to pay more attention to the soil versus the grape varieties they want to grow?
PP: A million percent yes. I am a winemaker; it is something I want to do - it is egocentric. I needed to learn to step back and not do anything to make my wine the correct way. Often, intervention can be a problem – especially when it is a young or new winemaker. I like working with young winemakers because they have such open minds but at the same time it seems they want to prove something and they touch the wine too much. Older winemakers don’t touch too much but they are more close-minded – you need to try to be somewhere in the middle.
CC: What have you learned about the Okanagan terroir so far?
PP: I have been coming to the Okanagan for six years. The Okanagan terroir is very special. It is the most different and unique terroir I have worked with in the entire world. It is in the desert but in the cold and high up in elevation. If you look at soil sample numbers, you will see crazy numbers. If you were to buy a book on viticulture, the Okanagan numbers would not be in the book. There is no recipe for the Okanagan – everything is very new so it is about instinct rather than numbers. And details - the details are important.
CC: By details, do you mean choosing your site and choosing the grape varieties that will thrive there?
PP: Yes, it is like saying all the Okanagan is sandy soil. We can say that but it is the same as saying everyone in Canada is Canadian, what does that really mean? We need to look further. We have sand, but what else? What type of sand? Silty sand? Sand with gravel…the details are important. Not everything is good for all rootstocks so you need to know what you are working with first before you plant to fully understand what is possible.
CC: Is terroir linked to minerality?
PP: No – terroir is a piece of land.
CC: What is your definition of terroir?
PP: My definition of terroir has changed many times during my life. For me now; terroir is a piece of land you can recognize. You want to have a terroir with its signature on it – it displays the land’s typicity every year. Terroir also changes with the weather but will display the same typicity. It is like a musician – every night he plays the same piece of music, but each performance is different. Maybe tomorrow, my definition will change, but that is how I see it now. It has taken me years to come to this definition. When I was 32 and received my PhD, I had different ideas. Now I am 47 and I feel less attached to the science and more interested in intuition. I told my wife I got a PhD to understand that wine and numbers don’t go well together. I don’t follow science as much anymore – I follow winemakers because they understand the language of wine. That is why there is confusion about minerality.
CC: What is minerality to you?
PP: For me, I don’t really like to use the word ‘minerality’; I use the word ‘electricity’. I think people understand the physical reaction in their mouth. I think minerality is a taste that someone needs to teach you. There are many ways that minerality or electricity show up in wine so, for me, I needed to be taught how to understand it and how to identify it. And, again, it is a personal sensation – not everyone has the same sensitivity to those flavors. Personally, it is all about electricity and tension and not everybody likes this sensation. When I invite people to my house, sometimes, the more mineral heavy wines are the ones that people don’t like. That is the gap between people who know about wine and those who do not. If you don’t train your palate, this sensation will be hard to understand. People are confused by the mineral flavors and call them rustic, astringent, not full enough…People want something sweet in their mouth – black fruit, round, sweet wines – these are the people who are not trained. When you understand about minerality and wine, you cannot go back – it is a sensation that lasts forever.
CC: How do you suggest that people learn to train and develop their palates?
PP: We need another generation to change the way we look at wine. Of course, now there are people who understand and get it, but there is still so much to be done. We need more people to learn to appreciate how to taste wine and not just reach for the sugar heavy wines. I think people need to be more open-minded.
CC: Are there ways that vineyards can become overly stressed and the tension and electricity fades away?
PP: There is a very thin line – yes. Minerality, as I said, is an electric sensation in your mouth and it gets easily confused with a wine being dry. And overly dry wine is made when the vines are stressed. So, for example, one very warm year in Barolo, which is very mineral heavy, can easily go to dry tannins. The line between very good minerality and dry tannins is a very thin line and is more difficult to understand. In 99% of the time, mineral wines come from stony places and stony places, generally, have more stress. You really need to know your vineyard area well. If you have a winemaker that wants to extract a lot - he or she can destroy the wine – it is a fine balance.
CC: Is there not currently a movement of winemaking around that world that promotes and celebrates a ‘hands-off’ approach; letting the unique terroir shine through?
PP: Yes, and I love it. There are the new Californian, Australian, and Chilean groups – a lot of winemakers are changing the way they look at wine and this is great. And, a lot of the top sommeliers really love this new style of wine so more people are getting educated.
CC: What do you look for when you are testing a site?
PP: First, I need to know the geology family I am working with. It is impossible to generalize – when I dig, I look for the small details and then I figure it out when I am working, digging and understanding. Ultimately, I am looking to see how much of the property is under limestone.
CC: How far do you go down?
PP: Maximum 2 meters if I want to find the stones. It was easy for me to see with the Coolshanagh vineyard that there is a lot of limestone. The randomness of the Okanagan Valley is beautiful. Maybe 1% will be Grand Cru potential, maybe 15% will be Premier Cru potential... you need time to fully understand the terroir.
CC: So the Okanagan is a good place to be in the world of wine right now?
PP: For me, it is a funny place to be. The challenge is that we don’t really know who we are yet. On this same level is Oregon. In Okanagan the numbers should not be able to make good wine – yet it happens. For example, say the pH in the soil is 8.7 - if you look in a book and see what to do with 8.7 – it will say ‘do not plant’. But, it is funny because here in the Okanagan it is good for grape growing when in the book it says it shouldn’t be. It is fascinating. Maybe it is the only place I work in the world where I don’t really know very well what I am doing - I am learning along with my clients.