Jim Chatto is a man with a lot to live up to. Last year, he took over as Chief Winemaker at the Mount Pleasant winery in the lower Hunter. He’s just the fourth person to hold this position in the winery’s 93-year history and he’s walking in the shoes of some legendary figures.

The first of those is Maurice O’Shea. In 1921 O’Shea was just 24 years old. The son of an Irish father and a French mother, he had already spent seven years in France completing studies in viticulture and oenology. Returning to Australia, he persuaded his widowed mother to buy the Hunter Valley property that he named Mount Pleasant.

The Hunter is often called the cradle of the Australian wine industry. Vines were first planted there in around 1823. From these beginnings, the Hunter Valley flourished, with several families establishing vineyards in the area.  Today, it’s certainly one of Australia’s most well-known wine regions, producing many fine, internationally-recognised wines.

In the Pokolbin area of the Hunter, nestled beneath the Brokenback Range, Maurice O’Shea planted vineyards that have become familiar names to wine-lovers: first Old Paddock then, in later years, Rosehill and Lovedale. These great vineyards continue to produce some of the best fruit in the country, forming the basis of some of Mount Pleasant’s most iconic wines, including the Lovedale Semillon and Rosehill Shiraz. The first wines were made by the light of a gas lantern – the luxury of electricity was still some years away.

Maurice O’Shea’s blending techniques and sophisticated use of oak – skills he’d honed in his time in France – were credited with producing red table wines of enormous flavour, intensity and longevity. The McWilliam family, led by Keith McWilliam, recognised the talent and potential of this great winemaker. In 1932 they joined forces with Maurice O’Shea by purchasing 50 per cent of the winery, acquiring the remaining share in 1941. O’Shea continued as wine-maker and, more than half a century later, his wines from the 1940s and early 1950s continue to display the character for which their maker was renowned.

Maurice died in 1956 but his ground-breaking work was kept alive by revered winemakers Brian Walsh (1956-1978) and Phil Ryan (1978-2012). The winery is today one of the most awarded in Australia, having been awarded an incredible five Championships, 128 trophies, 500 gold, 500 silver and 1104 bronze medals since the late 1970s.

The 2000 vintage of Mount Pleasant Maurice O’Shea Shiraz outscored Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace to be the highest-rated Shiraz in the 2005 edition of James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion. In 2008, Mount Pleasant was named Australia’s Winery of the Year and in 2009 Chief Winemaker Phil Ryan was officially appointed a Living Legend of the Hunter Valley.

With Ryan’s retirement, Jim Chatto takes up the mantle. “Mount Pleasant’s place in the story of Australian wine is significant,” Chatto says. “I’ve had the rare privilege of tasting some great O’Shea wines, so I’m aware of the gravitas the role carries and the enormous responsibility to honour the legacy of Maurice O’Shea and the individuality of each Mount Pleasant site.”

Chatto joins McWilliam’s from Pepper Tree wines, where he  had held the position of Chief Winemaker since 2007. During this time he was named 2009 Hunter Valley Winemaker of the Year, as well as being a 2010 Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year finalist. With 20 vintages of Hunter Valley winemaking under his belt, Jim is also a senior wine show judge with over 14 years’ experience across both regional and capital city shows. He has been Chairman of Judges at the Hunter Valley Wine Show since 2012.

More than 90 years on from Maurice O’Shea’s first vintages using basic tools and a simple basket press, the equipment has evolved and new faces have emerged. But the winemaking philosophy and the vineyards at Mount Pleasant remain the same.  A passionate Hunter Valley advocate, Chatto says he is looking forward to working with the famous Mount Pleasant vineyards. “My philosophy will be to proudly make Hunter wines of longevity, purity and freshness, true to their region and true to their site,” he says.

Originally published in SoVino magazine, Autumn issue, 2014.