The confidence to go out on his own has paid off for Jim Chatto, the quality of his Chatto Wines has been spectacular from the outset, making him a worthy finalist for Winemaker of the Year.
Jim Chatto posted on Instagram on 6 April 2019 with the heading ‘Moment of acceptance’. “Our grapes taste ready to pick, delicious in fact, but we won’t be making wine from them. They are stuffed from the smoke we endured during the #tasbushfires. Big thanks to industry friends who have reached out and ‘kept us in the game’ this year… Feel like a real farmer now.”
Like some others in Tasmania’s Huon Valley, Chatto made the hard decision to not make wine from his vineyards this vintage – although the grapes seemed fine – because the wine would almost certainly taste of bushfire smoke-taint.
The strange thing about smoke taint is that the winemaker can’t always know for sure how smoky the wine will be till after it’s fermented. Harvesting grapes by hand costs a lot of money, and if the wine is no good, that money is wasted. It’s a sobering moment for a man who has enjoyed such a stellar career.
He was concurrently chief winemaker for McWilliam’s and Pipers Brook, and is currently group chief winemaker at McWilliam’s, and consultant to Pipers Brook. Chatto had previously been chief winemaker for First Creek and Pepper Tree in the Hunter Valley before moving to McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant where he shook things up with spectacular results, helped in no small part by the great 2014 Hunter vintage, from which he produced a raft of special bottlings including single-block, old-vine shirazes.
A seminal judging gig at the Tasmanian Wine Show in 1999 proved a watershed: he met and eventually married his Tasmanian wife Daisy, and tasted the Tassie pinot noirs that got him hooked on the island state. In 1999 and 2000 he worked vintages at Rosevears Estate in the West Tamar. Soon after, the couple bought land at Glaziers Bay, planted vines and eventually moved there full-time.
Chatto is certainly learning what it means to be a farmer: in the 2017 vintage his vineyard produced just 40% of the crop it had in 2016. But the quality has been spectacular from the outset.
In this issue’s Tasmanian pinot noir panel tasting, Chatto’s 2017 Isle was one of the top wines. Each year, the best part of the vineyard is bottled separately as Chatto Isle, while the remainder of the grapes, augmented by bought-in fruit, goes into a second label, Chatto Huon Valley Pinot Noir. This year he’s made pinot, but none from the Huon.
So confident is Chatto of his wine’s quality that for the past three years he’s staged a trade tasting where he’s pitted his Isle against a leading Burgundy producer’s grand and premier cru wines. Three vintages are presented blind. At the most recent, Domaine Armand Rousseau’s Chambertin, Clos de la Roche and Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Les Cazetiers were the combatants. In each of the three vintage brackets, the Chatto Isle came third, beating the premier cru.
The confidence to mount such a cheeky challenge comes from having an outstanding palate. Chatto is a senior wine show judge with over 20 years’ experience across regional and capital city shows. He’s currently chief judge at the Royal Queensland Wine Show.
In 2009 he was named Hunter Valley Winemaker of the Year, and in 2010 (while at Pepper Tree) a GT WINE Winemaker of the Year finalist. He was also a Len Evans Tutorial Scholar in 2002.
Chatto is bullish about Tasmania, and content that he’s chosen the right area. He sees Huon Valley and Pipers Brook as the most marginal regions and best suited to pinot noir – while the East Coast and Tamar Valley are the earliest to pick and tend to make bigger, riper wines. That’s not what he seeks: Chatto is after perfume and subtlety, elegance and intensity at lower alcohol levels.
He believes his wines are getting better, year by year, and it will be “awesome” to see what they’re like in the future, as the Isle vines are only 12 years old this year. “Tasmania’s best wines are still 10 years away. This will be a big step away from mainland Australia.”
And summing up his own career, he says “I’ve spent a lot of time making wine all around the place for other people. Now I want to specialise.”
FACTS AND FIGURES
REGION | Huon Valley, Tasmania
YEARS IN INDUSTRY | 26
ANNUAL CRUSH | 18 tonnes
STAND-OUT WINES | Chatto Isle Pinot Noir