Changing the face of South African wine
In 1973, Pongrácz was appointed Chief Viticultural Adviser at Distillers Corporation. During his 20-odd years in viticulture at the Cape, Pongrácz helped shape the South African wine industry through his intellect, insight, knowledge, innovation, vision and above all, fearless tenacity to pursue what he believed to be right.
He had a major influence on the introduction and propagation of premium grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. He understood the importance of these and other noble cultivars in the future of the South African wine industry.
Adamant to challenge the status quo that was restricting the quality and number of grape varieties available in South Africa at the time, Pongrácz lobbied for the importation of new plant material as well as a change of policy in favour of the careful selection of the best vines to propagate quality vineyards. Although it was used widely in Europe, the practice of careful selection was considered very controversial in South Africa at the time when the industry was concerned about importing new material for fear of viruses.
A pioneer in his field, Desiderius Pongrácz was instrumental in shaping new viticulture practises. He was author of a number of books and produced numerous scientific publications. His definitive book, Practical Viticulture, published in 1978, is still consulted by students today. Written from the premise that truth needs no excuse, Pongrácz openly challenges the restrictive policies of the time. Through his expertise and that of his fellow countryman, Dr Julius Laszlo, within the framework of the Distillers Organisation, innovative producers such as Danie de Wet started planting new premium varietals, particularly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Yet it was not by going by the book that he inspired others. For if science ruled his head, it was his many varied interests that guided his heart including classical music, anthropology and his love for Dachshunds.
Pongrácz died at the age of 61 in hospital after a tragic accident while transporting Chardonnay vines to Uitkyk Estate. He was cremated on 16 August and his ashes remain in the wall of the family cemetery on Meerlust Estate. In an obituary Nico Myburgh, owner of Meerlust at the time, referred to Pongrácz as “a true gentleman and good friend”.