A toast to 25 years

Natural sparkling wines around the globe – Champagne, Cava, Prosecco and Méthode Cap Classique – are steeped in history and bring an allure of glamour at the mere mention of their names. This year a local icon, Pongrácz, celebrates 25 years of being South Africa’s most adored Méthode Cap Classique.

The Pongrácz range owes its pioneering pedigree to the life and spirit of Desiderius Pongrácz, a Hungarian nobleman with a larger-than-life personality who revolutionised viticulture at the Cape. His story is captivating: after qualifying as a viticulturist in Budapest he was taken prisoner of war in 1944 and survived nearly a decade in a Siberian labour camp before escaping and managing to find his way to Stellenbosch via a Namibian connection. Soon after his arrival he became a technical assistant at the Oenological and Viticultural Research Institute at Nietvoorbij and subsequently, while still working full time, he obtained an MSc in agriculture from the University of Stellenbosch, writing his thesis in Afrikaans.

Desiderius Pongrácz (fondly known as Pongy to his friends and colleagues) with his dogs.

In 1973, Pongrácz was appointed chief viticultural adviser at Distillers Corporation. The author of a number of books and scientific publications – his definitive book, Practical Viticulture, was published in 1978 and is still consulted by students today – he strongly believed that there was always a better way to do things and he openly challenged the restrictive policies of the time. He was also instrumental in introducing the classic Champagne varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to the Cape. Fellow winemaker Danie de Wet, owner of Dewetshof Estate, was a good friend and he fondly remembers Pongie, as the Hungarian was called by his friends, as being always immaculately dressed, witty and a prolific reader with a sharp intellect who encouraged free thinking. Desiderius left his mark on the landscape and in the hearts of his friends, who produced the Méthode Cap Classique Pongrácz in his honour and to celebrate his extraordinary life.

When Pongrácz made its debut 25 years ago, Méthode Cap Classique was in its infancy. Today the Méthode Cap Classique Association (established in 1992 with 14 members) is stronger than ever, with no fewer than 95 members. What’s more, Pongrácz is still the market leader, with the biggest market share. Accomplished winemaker Elunda Basson is responsible for taking the Pongrácz legacy into the future and for her the secret of the wine’s success is simple: “Pongrácz has always been known for its quality credentials and the signature bottle, and in this way has been able to remain a market leader for the past 25 years. Each wine in the Pongrácz range has its own unique style, derived from the difference in grapes, terroir, blend composition and time spent in the bottle. The brand has been committed to delivering award-winning wines consistently and to taking the Méthode Cap Classique category to new heights.”

There are Pongrácz Brut, Pongrácz Rosé and the Grande Cuvée Desiderius in the range, each portraying a different style. It is the Grande Cuvée, however, that crowns the best of each vintage because it is made only from the finest carefully selected grapes and blended only from the best base wines, with extended time on the lees adding the finishing touch. Elunda describes Desiderius as “a timeless Cap Classique with the perfect balance of crisp green apple acidity and creamy brioche. It is dry, elegant and refined on the finish, with a rich complexity that delights all the senses”.

With much talk about vintages and excellent harvests, I ask Elunda if you can expect the same style and taste year after year. Her answer is a delightful “yes and no”. “Yes” because in the non-vintage styles, Pongrácz lives up to consumer expectations of consistency in taste; “no” because the flagship Desiderius showcases the uniqueness and superior craftsmanship of each vintage.

Although South Africans can readily acquire imported sparkling wines from supermarkets and wine stores, our local product is still an attractive buy, delivering excellent quality at an affordable price. Elunda explains, “South Africa’s wide range of appellations means that it is possible to make wines that are distinctive. Pongrácz takes full advantage of a number of special sites all over the Western Cape. While remaining true to the classic varieties and classic methods of making bottle-fermented wine, Pongrácz celebrates terroir and climatic differences, building them into its own style and finally blending them into the special Cuvées.”

Let us raise our flutes and toast Desiderius Pongrácz, the visionary viticulturist and intrepid trailblazer whose life’s work made it all possible.

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