The man who saved Grange

Ray Beckwith OAM, Penfolds' first trained wine chemist, a winemaking pioneer in the 1930s and '40s, has died at the age of 100.

Beckwith discovered how pH control could save wine from being ruined by microbial disease. He is also credited with enabling Penfolds' chief winemaker of the day, Max Schubert, to create Australia's most famous wine, Penfolds Grange Hermitage.

Beckwith retired from Penfolds in 1973 and was recognised very late in his life, being awarded an honorary doctorate from Adelaide University in 2004, in recognition of his contribution to wine science, the Maurice O'Shea Award in 2006, and the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2008.

Roads and developments in the Barossa Valley were named after him. He was also made a life member of the Winemakers' Federation of Australia, and an honorary life member of the American Society of Viticulture and Oenology.

He was bemused and humbled by it all, as well as delighted. ''All these things have come only after the last few years. It's a good thing I didn't conk out earlier, otherwise I wouldn't have known!'' he commented.

Part of the reason Beckwith's work was not recognised until well after his retirement was the secrecy in the wine industry in his day. Unlike today, wineries did not share information and it could be many years before breakthrough discoveries were shared. Beckwith's work on pH saved Penfolds untold money: it was estimated bacterial spoilage was causing up to 30 per cent of all wine to be undrinkable. We can only imagine what it would have saved had the entire wine industry been permitted to share the secret.

After first seeing a pH meter at an Adelaide university, Beckwith persuaded Penfolds to buy one. The cost was equal to 20 weeks of his own salary. It was the first used in a winery in Australia, and probably the world. At the time sherry and port were the biggest-selling wines and much of it was diseased by taints such as mousiness (the smell of a mouse's nest). Adding tartaric acidity to lower the pH solved the problem. It is still the most common way to control pH in wine.

These days pH control is just as important in table wines. In recent years, the outbreak of brettanomyces spoilage has reminded winemakers that keeping pH below a strict limit is vitally important in red wines.

Beckwith surprised everyone with his mental and physical fitness well into his 90s, driving his own car and living with full independence in Nuriootpa in the Barossa Valley until quite recently. He died on November 7, three months short of his 101st birthday.