In the industry since 2009 [TBC]
Doubled Highgate’s yield in a single year
Thornton Pillay seems slightly surprised that he is not a ‘lawyer-slash-doctor-slash-accountant’. Becoming one of those three professionals was more or less a family expectation. ‘But I found grapes fascinating.’
Thornton’s studies took him from Weston Agricultural College, via a bursary from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, to Elsenburg Agricultural College. There he studied viticulture and oenology, turning out his own Muscat in his final year. Mentored by Boela Gerber at Groot Constantia, he decided on that varietal because it pairs so well with curries. ‘I am very proud of my culture.’
Thornton is calm, considered and quietly confident; traits that have served him well in sometimes tricky conditions. From 2017, he began raising the bar at Highgate – one of only three wine estates in KwaZulu-Natal. With its summer rainfall season, the climate of that province presented a challenge. But Thornton set about putting his theoretical studies into practice, and, by the time he left after five years, had introduced ten different lines. ‘In KwaZulu-Natal, I made my peace with nature.’
Thornton’s commitment to his craft is remarkable. Although, traditionally, he eats neither beef nor pork, he suspended that practice for a year during his studies. He wanted to understand what wines would pair with those types of meat. He trained his palate in other ways too, finding taste notes of cumin, cardamom and coriander and contrasting those with the more expected descriptors of – say – cherry, asparagus or gooseberry.
As well as pursuing his own label, Thornton is assistant winemaker at The Drift. He oversees this range of Overberg wines with a firm hand and a sharp eye. ‘Winemaking is not an exact science, but you can still be precise.’ The sense of tiredness after a long day during harvest time is something he relishes. ‘And I wake up every morning and know that I’m doing what I should be doing.’
Thornton clearly loves sharing his passion with others. (Unsurprisingly, given that first foray into Muscat, he encourages the appetite for sweeter varietals as a first entry into wine.) He jumps at the opportunity to cook butter chicken for friends. Despite his success, he remains – almost diligently – down-to-earth.