Former Penfolds chief winemaker Don Ditter – who had an ‘immeasurable’ influence on the evolving style of Grange – has died at the age of 89.

Don Ditter, who was raised in the Barossa Valley, began his Penfolds career as a lab assistant at Magill in 1942.

He took over lead winemaking duties in 1973 from the legendary Max Schubert, with his official appointment as chief winemaker coming two years later.

Ditter oversaw a difficult period in the winery’s history, thanks to ownership changes and challenging market conditions in the 1970s, but by the time he retired, in 1986, Penfolds’ fortunes were back on an upward curve.

During his tenure, Koonunga Hill, Magill Estate, Bin 707 and the first special bin releases since the early 1970s were launched, and the style of Penfolds Grange underwent some important changes.

Ditter implemented a revamp of vineyard management and fruit tracking, overseeing the refinement of a number of winemaking techniques – including, controversially, encouraging volatile acidity – and changes to maturation techniques.

‘Maturation has always been an important aspect of Penfolds winemaking,’ he said. ‘Timing, however, is everything when it comes to getting the right balance of freshness, fruit and maturation characters. If the wine was a little worn – it can never be reclaimed.’

The result was a fresher, more fruit-driven style of Grange, with 1976, 1978 and 1983 among Ditter’s standout vintages. His last – 1986 – remains one of the greatest Granges of all time.

‘Don was Old School,’ said current Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago. ‘A gentleman in every sense, 24/7.

‘Max certainly knew what he was doing when he handed the baton to Don. A decision never disputed.’

Ditter said of his time at Penfolds: ‘Every day we were thinking of new ways to make better wine. If you could do something better, why not?’

  • Read an interview with Peter Gago in the January issue of Decanter magazine, out now. Subscribe here.