Jim Chatto doesn’t come from Australian wine royalty. He hasn’t had a life in wine handed to him on a silver platter; rather he is an extremely talented Australian winemaker who has risen through the ranks to become Chief Winemaker at one of the most important and revered places in Australian wine, Mount Pleasant in the Hunter Valley. The boy done good, as they say, really good. Mount Pleasant is owned by the McWilliam family - who are undoubtedly Australian wine royalty. They have been the custodians of this special property for almost as long as it’s been called Mount Pleasant, ensuring the legacy of legendary Australian winemakers like Maurice O’Shea and Phil Ryan.
In 2013 the family appointed Jim as its Chief Winemaker, looking after their operations in the Margaret River (Evans & Tate), Riverina (McWilliams/Hanwood), Hilltops (Barwang) and Hunter Valley (Mount Pleasant). As a result, Jim became only the fourth Mount Pleasant winemaker since Maurice O’Shea gave a name to this beautiful hillside vineyard in the Hunter Valley in 1921. Jim has quickly repaid the family’s faith in his winemaking nous and while he has respected the Mount Pleasant and McWilliam’s legacy, he has taken the wines to another level. The culmination of his efforts thus far being the doyen of Australian wine writers, James Halliday, awarding Mount Pleasant his Winery of the Year for 2017 at the Halliday Wine Companion Awards.
We’ve got this cascade of wonderful wines that we haven’t seen since O’Shea. If you turn the clock back 60 years you might recognise some of these wines. He’s really bought back the legacy of O’Shea big time.
James Halliday, Wine Writer, Critic, Winemaker and Wine Show Judge
Jim Chatto – a journey through wine
While Jim Chatto didn’t grow up in a vineyard or around a winery, he was never far from food and wine. Jim’s parents have always worked in hospitality, cooking and running restaurants in Canberra to this day. As a result wine was always a part of his life, even if Jim wasn’t partaking himself! Initially when working out what he would do with his life, Jim thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a chef. But when push came to shove Jim realised that his talents were better suited to another field,
‘I love art and creativity, but also relish in the methodical discipline of the sciences. Winemaking satisfies both for me.’
So it was off to Charles Sturt University to study a degree in Wine Science, combining the creative with the scientific. While he didn’t know it at the time, a couple of key moments were about to take place that would help shape Jim’s future. While he tasted innumerable wines while gaining the skills needed to complete his degree, there were a few that stood out to him. One in particular was a 1984 Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon, made by Phil Ryan. Jim was so enamoured with this wine that he applied for work at Mount Pleasant once he had completed his studies. He also visited the winery in 1993, travelling with his dad while exploring the Hunter Valley looking for vintage work. On both occasions he was unable to secure any employment, but the place left a big impression on him.
‘In my mind’s eye it was a special place; full of larger than life characters and a real sense of history… I fell in love with the wine styles and the landscape.’
Learning from the Hunter Valley greats
While there wasn’t a spot for him on the team at Mount Pleasant, Jim did manage to get a job in the Hunter Valley at Tamburlaine. While this wasn’t a winery with the historic cachet of Mount Pleasant, it is a very important estate in regards to the evolution of Australian wine. Tamburlaine is Australia’s largest producer of organic wines and his exposure to this method of viticulture helped shape Jim’s ‘less is more’ winemaking philosophy.
‘…keep it simple and focus on the important stuff. My job is to translate the flavours of the site and the season into every bottle I make.’
In the Hunter Valley Jim Chatto worked with two winemakers who’ve inspired him ever since. Greg Silkman, then at Tamburlaine but now managing director at First Creek, and Gary Reed from Petersons. Between them they taught Jim the basics, giving him the grounding he needed to turn the theory from university into the practicalities of the winery. They also taught him something that he’s taken everywhere he has been since: the importance of attention to detail. The focus that this has brought to Jim’s winemaking has been vital in his rise (and rise) amongst the ranks of Australian winemakers.
An important lesson from an Australian wine legend
Another Australian wine legend has also played a vital role in Jim’s development as a winemaker. In 2002 Jim was selected as a Len Evans Tutorial scholar. The Len Evans Tutorial brings the future leaders of the wine industry to the Hunter Valley to test their tasting skills against their peers and industry giants. It was at the Tutorial that Jim Chatto met Len. Len is famed for recognising early on, much like Maurice O’Shea, that Australia’s wine future lay in table wines not fortifieds and dedicated his life to the promotion and enjoyment of great Australian wines around the world. He taught Jim about these wines and taught him to always strive for the very best. To achieve the very best Jim knew he had to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. As well as living and working in Tasmania, he has had the opportunity to work with fruit from many of Australia’s finest wine regions. From well-known areas like the Hunter Valley and Coonawarra to emerging centres like Orange and Wrattonbully. With each vintage he has built up a library of winemaking experiences that have prepared Jim for taking the reins at Mount Pleasant in 2013.
‘I bring a new chapter in the story of Mount Pleasant. Fresh eyes, and someone who has been yearning to make Lovedale Semillon since first tasting it at university 20 years ago. Mount Pleasant presents a dream come true - wonderful vineyard resources, a rich history and the opportunity to be part of something truly great. ‘
What next for Jim Chatto and what next for Mount Pleasant?
One of the most striking things about Jim’s time at McWilliam’s and Mount Pleasant has been the impact that he has had in a relatively short amount of time. The wines made at Mount Pleasant, Evans and Tate, Barwang et al were already regarded as leading fine Australian wines, but Jim has been able to take them to a new level. Nowhere has this been more obvious than at Mount Pleasant itself. Jim clearly understands the gravity of the task that he has been given, to protect and preserve the legacy of one of the most precious places in Australian wine. He is upholding this heritage by investing heavily in the great vineyard sites at Mount Pleasant to ensure they continue to make great wines for the next hundred years. But he is not resting on his or anyone else’s laurels.
‘What's special about Mount Pleasant is the vineyard sites: Old Hill (planted 1880) Old Paddock (planted 1921) Rosehill and Lovedale (planted 1946) All are unique and each with its own personality. There is also such a strong sense of history at Mount Pleasant. It's like there is something in the air, something almost tangible. It's inescapable for anyone that has worked there. ‘
As well as investing in those wonderful Mount Pleasant vineyards, Jim is also looking to the future by planting Mediterranean varieties like Sagrantino, Montepulciano, Mencia, Fiano and Vermentino. These varieties should be well-suited to the warm and humid Hunter Valley climate and produce wines that will partner modern cuisine and our modern wine tastes. Will we, perhaps, be talking about Mount Pleasant Mencia in the same glowing terms we do a Lovedale Semillon today in a hundred years? There are no guarantees, but with Jim’s talent, attention to detail and his desire for the very best there’s every chance we could be… With Jim Chatto at the helm at Mount Pleasant you get the feeling that Maurice O’Shea is looking down on his beautiful hillside vineyard with a big smile on his face. And quite right too!
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