It was 2013 and he had just accepted the job as chief winemaker at Pokolbin winery Mt Pleasant, making him only the fourth in the company’s long and distinguished history.
The 44-year-old’s brief was not just to make wine, but to put a stamp on things while respecting the winery's heritage. To refresh things, make changes, shake the tree.
But fast forward a couple of years and even Chatto, renowned among his colleagues for his wonderful palate and winemaking precision, would be amazed at what he has achieved.
He didn’t just shake the tree, he rattled and rolled it.
So let’s cut to the chase.
At the release of the prestigious James Halliday Wine Companion awards this week, Mt Pleasant shot through the stratosphere. Top winery in Australia no less.
Top semillon too, with the 2009 Lovedale getting 98 points from 100. And “only starting to hit its straps” Halliday enthused.
But it was the range of Hunter shiraz that stole the show, mostly from the dazzling 2014 vintage.
Here’s few numbers to consider. The flagship red, the Maurice O’Shea, scored 99 out of 100.
It was one of seven Mt Pleasant shiraz – you read it right, seven - that scored 97 or more. A further four scored 96 points.
Oh, and add three semillon with scores of 95.
Halliday wrote: “With seven shirazs scoring between 97 and 99 points, supported by three semillons scoring more than 95 points, it was the only possible choice as Winery of the Year.”
Let me dwell on a few more Halliday words if I may.
The Maurice O’Shea: “Has the gently throbbing power of a Rolls Royce; superb, deep crimson-purple hue … countless layers of black fruits. Dissecting it now is an academic exercise at best, so great is its future. This is as close to a 100-year potential as you are ever likely to find.’
But let us step back a bit.
When Chatto joined Mt Pleasant, the first thing he did was go on a tasting expedition. All the parcels of fruit, the wines, back vintages wherever possible.
“I needed to know exactly what we had to work with,” he recalled.
He knew the fruit was good - ”I’d tasted a lot of their wines over the years, and Rosehill is probably my favourite vineyard in the Hunter, full stop” – but the more he tasted the more excited he became.
“Some of the individual parcels of fruit were just so good, but in the past they had been blended into these wines – lovely wines, terrific wines in fact – but I really wanted to see how they would go on their own.
And so a whole new fleet of wines was created.
The individual Block range of four shiraz came into being – the 1965 Vines, 1946 Vines, 1921 Vines and the 1880 Vines. They scored… wait for it… 96, 97, 97, 97.
Then there’s the mountain range – Mountain A, C and D – which scored an equally stunning 96 to 98. In fact, Halliday even wrote of the Mountain A - "I have bought some hoping I will be around in 10 years time."
The big question was how would stripping these wines from their traditional homes – forming a part of two of Mt Pleasant’s stalwart reds - the Rosehill and the Old Paddock Old Hill shiraz - affect them? Everyone waited.
Answer: Not one iota. Just as Chatto had insisted all along. The Old Paddock Old Hill scored 98, and the Rosehill 96.
Hell, even the Mt Pleasant Mothervine pinot noir – not a strong variety in the Hunter by a long shot – scored 96.
Chatto is quick to praise his winemaking team of Adrian Sparkes and Paul Harvey in the success, but when pushed acknowledges that this is the greatest achievement in winemaking.
Despite all the changes the one thing he has done is continue to make wines the way Mt Pleasant have always done – medium bodied, savoury, easily approachable.
“The style was right all along,” Chatto said. “In recent years cool climate wines have become all the rage with their medium-bodied spiciness. Well the Hunter pretty much does that. Instead of medium-bodied spiciness, we do medium-bodied savouriness. The other side of the same coin."
He is big on “style’’ - and big on history. With the Maurice O’Shea, for example, he didn’t just want a good wine, but a wine in the style that O’Shea, the Hunter’s first great winemaker, would have appreciated.
He certainly did that. To quote Halliday again: "O’Shea would have died a happy man had this been his last wine.
But while some things stay the same, others change. Like the prices.
The Maurice O’Shea has jumped from $180 to $250. The Block range are all a none-too-shabby $135, the Mountain range $75. Even the entry level Philip shiraz, normally a budget buyer’s dream, has jumped to $25.
From Chatto’s perspective, it’s about a fair price for the wine they produce. He points out that if they’re overpriced, they won’t sell … simple as that.
It should be pointed out, too, that Mt Pleasant's prices had stayed relatively unchanged for some years. It was more a matter of 'when' rather than 'if' the rpices would increase.
He has also decided to hold back the 2009 Lovedale Semillon and they will release the 2010 first.
“I tasted the older semillons and the 09 Lovedale was a star. Better that 07 and 05, better than 10 and 11. It’s a beauty.”
You can expect a price of about $80 when it finally hits the market.
And on the winery front, a lot of vines have been pulled that weren’t quite delivering, and some new European varieties have been planted in their place.
“Tempranillo, touriga, vermentino, fiano, sagrantino, montepulciano, mencia … it’s all very exciting.”
Jim Chatto clearly is backing himself. And why not.