Witty, brilliant and occasionally provocative, Desiderius Pongrácz was a blue-blooded count from the Hungarian aristocracy.
He chose to live his life as a man of the land pursuing a career in viticulture. After graduating from the Hungarian Academy for Agriculture in 1944, instead of returning to the family estate, Desiderius Pongrácz joined the cavalry in the Hungarian army. Shortly after Hungary’s surrender, he was captured by the advancing Russians.
For nearly a decade, he would toil in the infamous labour camps of Siberia as a prisoner of war, first as a lumberjack and then in the perilous Siberian copper mines.
He would later credit these torturous years of drudgery and solitude for instilling in him the zeal for life that would become the hallmark of his character.
Finally, with the war over and his homeland in the steely grip of the Soviet Union, Desiderius Pongrácz was released back to Hungary. During the chaos of the Hungarian revolt, he resolved to escape and set his sights on Africa after securing a position as a farm manager in Namibia through his European nobility connections.
In 1958, he relocated to the Stellenbosch winelands where he worked as a farm manager before joining the research institute of Nietvoorby under Dr Piet Venter in 1963. While at the research institute, he obtained his Masters of Science Degree in Agriculture at the University of Stellenbosch.
In 1973, he 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. Dr Anton Rupert, who was very fond of him, asked Dr Laszlo to visit him every day.
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”.
There are a great many things that need to align to compose a single bottle of Pongrácz. Noble varietals, knowledge and expertise are just a few of the pieces of an ensemble that, once in play, forms the symphony that is one of South Africa’s finest Méthode Cap Classique’s.
But Pongrácz is not just about the art of winemaking. It’s about the character, charisma and skill of the man who inspired a crescendo that has grown into the country’s most adored Cap Classique. It is no small wonder that the Cap Classique that bears his name stand head and shoulders above the rest. Composed in the classic French tradition of the noble grape varieties of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Pongrácz is a fine testament to the man who inspired it.
So the next time you sip on a flute of Pongrácz Method Cap Classique, spare a moment to think of the genius whose noble character, tenacity and wit served as the inspiration, and whose life’s work made it all possible.
“Dr Laszlo simply had to commemorate his friend by naming the sparkling wine that was launched in 1990”