Jen Parr
Valli vineyards
NEW ZEALAND Winemaker of the year

There’s no third-time luck needed for Jen Parr. This is the second time she has been nominated for this Award and is a deserving winner; her enthusiasm and passion for pinot noir is endearing.

This is the third year that Gourmet Traveller WINE has hosted its Winemakerof the Year Awards. In 2017 the Award was won by Dom Maxwell of Greystone Wines in North Canterbury. Maxwell’s enthusiasm and flair contributed to a string of stylish, award-winning wines including his novel and adventurous vineyard fermentation to amplify sense of place.

Last year the Award went to Helen Masters from the much-celebrated Ata Rangi winery in Martinborough. Masters’ intelligent and intuitive winemaking skills have helped evolve a range of great wines, famously led by one of NZ’s most outstanding examples of pinot noir, into something phenomenal.

This year’s winner is Jen Parr, winemaker at Valli Vineyards in Central Otago and consultant winemaker for several other producers in the same region. A native of Oregon, Parr grew up a short distance from the Willamette Valley, famous for its stylish pinot noir, but it wasn’t until she went to Stanford University that she became interested in wine.

After graduating, Parr moved to London in the late ’90s and settled into a successful career selling financial software. Turning her back on the world of IT she quit her job and moved to Gaillac in the southwest of France to pick grapes.

When the harvest was over Parr moved to the Southern Hemisphere after landing a job at Villa Maria. She worked a couple of harvests with Craggy Range before accepting the position of assistant winemaker with Olssens in Central Otago. She was promoted to head winemaker three years before the winery was sold and re-christened Terra Sancta.

After buying a house in Wanaka, marrying a Kiwi called Callum, and landing a dream job as winemaker with Valli Vineyards, Parr now calls Central Otago home.

“To be a good winemaker you really have to love wine and be passionate about the industry,” says Parr. “I also think great winemaking requires intuition and humility. We have one chance a year to make the best expression of the season and this is where intuition is critical as you need to know how and when to take risks and when to do nothing."

“Humans play such a small but essential role in expressing time and place in a vintage of wine and it’s very important to remain humble and understand that there are larger forces in the universe at play (Mother Nature for one) and you are only one small piece of the puzzle."

“Generosity also goes a long way in the wine industry – generosity of spirit as well as time. The evolution of the NZ wine industry is led by its people and I find it very rewarding to get involved outside of the winery to help shape our future in some small way. I have found that if you give a little of your time and energy, you get 10 times more in return.”

I ask Parr what attracted her to pinot noir, which I assumed was her main passion.

“If I only made one wine it would be pinot noir – again and again. I believe it is known as the elusive grape (also the heartbreak grape) because it requires both emotional and intellectual engagement. To truly understand pinot noir, you must go beneath the surface as the beauty is intrinsic, not superficial."

“There are other varieties that are better suited for immediate gratification. Pinot noir may flirt with your senses but it has the power to really engage your mind. I guess you might say it is a grape for intellectual hedonists!”

And what other varieties is she passionate about? “I think New Zealand is one of the most exciting places in the world for chardonnay makers (and drinkers). I judge chardonnay regularly in NZ wine shows and the quality and diversity is really impressive.

“Chardonnay is grown successfully in all major wine regions here and I believe style is a combination of the attributes of the place and the way the winemaker chooses to engage with those characteristics. We make chardonnay from the limestone-centric soils in the Waitaki Valley and the complexity and delicacy I find in chardonnay from this region is very exciting."

“The other type of wine (more a technique than variety) that I love is orange or skin-contact white wines. We have been making this style of wine at Valli for five vintages and currently have orange pinot gris ageing in barrels from three different Otago subregions. The sense of place is so defined it is really fascinating. The wines have serious ageing potential as well – I’m excited about the future of this style.”

Parr has worked in the wine industry for 17 years but in that time has experienced 30 vintages. She learned her trade through experience rather than in the classroom.

She is driven by her enthusiasm for wine and acutely inquisitive nature. She asks questions and tests the answers rather than blindly accepting them as facts and is happy to share her knowledge.

Jen Parr is clearly one of this country’s most promising young winemakers.

Bob Campbell MW

Photography Courtesy of Valli Vineyards.