KZN vineyard harvests fruits of Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé Programme


Paying it forward at Highgate Wine Estate in KwaZulu-Natal, Thornton Pillay is determined to make his experience garnered as a Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé count in his home province.

 KwaZulu-Natal is extremely new to South Africa’s viticultural history spanning over 350 years with only a handful of wine producers in the region.

“Our wines are made from grapes produced on the estate itself. We were the first to certify our Chardonnay,” explains Thornton, newly appointed winemaker at Highgate Wine Estate.

Thornton moved to the Stellenbosch Winelands from Durban to fulfil his dream of becoming a winemaker. After receiving his Bachelor’s Degree in Agriculture at Elsenburg Agricultural College, Thornton enrolled in the Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé Programme in 2012. He spent his first year honing his skills under the mentorship of Louis Strydom at Ernie Els Wines, followed by Boela Gerber at Groot Constantia before joining KWV as assistant winemaker in 2014.

After working at KWV for a year, this talented young winemaker decided to return to his roots in KwaZulu-Natal. As a summer rainfall area, making wine there comes with a unique set of challenges to ensure healthy vines, altogether different from the Western Cape.

 “Summer is a critical time for the grapes to ripen and reach their desired sugar levels. In a summer rainfall area this is more difficult, but with proper vineyard management the negative weather does not have to affect the quality of the grapes adversely,” adds Thornton.

The diverse experience working with a wide variety of wines as a Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé helped him gain the confidence to build a successful career.

“Being part of the Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé Programme gave me the opportunity of working alongside some of our country’s top winemakers. I gained an immense amount of experience in producing premium quality red, white and Méthode Cap Classique wines. I also had the privilege of participating in an international harvest during my time in the programme,” Thornton reminisces.

Driven by a single minded vision to bring about transformation in the wine industry, the Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé Programme was founded in 2006 under the auspices of the Nedbank Development Trust, with the first protégé recruited in 2007. Over the past 10 years, a total of 20 talented protégés have come through the ranks, obtaining valuable experience while enjoying the rare opportunity of rubbing shoulders with giants in the industry.

For more information on the Guild, contact Tel: 021 852 0408 or send an email to Students interested in applying for the Protégé Programme can visit the Guild’s website at