Once upon a time there was a fairy princess who lived in a castle high up on a hilltop overlooking plains and mountains and vineyards. She wore a long burgundy gown made of satin, with billowing sleeves, her brown hair cascading down her back and a long, magic cape.
She does live in a castle, it is surrounded by vineyards and mountains, but she is a countess, not a princess, and she only dresses up once a year when the Chateau de Montmelas – one of the most famous wine estates of the Beaujolais – has its annual children’s party.
“You may think the French Revolution did away with all these social classes, but it hasn’t,” said Delphine, Countess d’Harcourt, waving across the valley below. “There is still a difference between the ‘chatelains’ and the people of the village, but our family has always worked hard to narrow that gap.”
Delphine married into the Harcourt family and into French nobility, a role that fits her well but doesn’t seem to have gone to her head. In the region she’s known as the ‘Communications Countess’ because her job is to promote the castle and the wine it produces.
“It’s impossible to maintain a place like this without major investment, and the money has to come from somewhere. We sell wine, we organize visits, we host theater festivals and we get a bit of help from the government,” she said. Weddings and parties are organized in the courtyard, some of the dependencies have been turned into rental apartments, and a one of the towers is now a gîte, a rural vacation rental. It is all strictly controlled and there are rules and constraints, because the chateau is protected by the state.
She wasn’t able to tell me how much it cost to heat it every year, but judging by the drafty facade, the chilly wind and the size of the building, it certainly wouldn’t be cheap.
The Chateau de Montmelas has been in the same family for nearly 500 years, often handed down from mother to daughter (which explains why the family name changed frequently from one generation to the next). A former garrison, it dates back to the 10th century and has been transformed through the years. As was the fashion in the 19th century, medieval features were actually added, making the château look older: in a way, history was augmented after the fact.
I didn’t have a chance to visit the interior but I did ask Delphine about some of the family lore.
The lore and legends of Montmelas
“The family has always been close to the villagers, so when the French Revolution did away with much of the aristocracy, this castle was spared because the villagers protected it – that’s not what happened to most of the others,” she said.
And then there’s the family motto, ‘Don’t pretend.’ It was apparently engraved in the bedrooms on some of the headboards, a fitting bit of advice.
Another legend: the Germans tried to requisition the chateau’s copper roofing during World War II but the diminutive Countess of Chabannes, who then owned the estate, told them with great aplomb: “It’s not copper, it’s zinc!” And they went away.
What’s fun about this particular chateau is its living, breathing history. A family aunt lives here (Delphine, her husband and four children live a few kilometers down the road) so it isn’t just a museum but someone’s home.
Today it is owned by 32 cousins, all of whom gather once a year for ‘garden duty’ – the huge gardens require plenty of upkeep and give everyone a chance to get together.
Delphine may not have been to the manor born, but when she dons her billowy robes for the children of the village each year, she is certain to be every inch a princess.
Sorry, a countess.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- You can visit the Château de Montmelas at 11am the first Saturday of every month.
- The estate produces a Beaujolais Villages red (Gamay grape) and white (Chardonnay) on its 54-hectare vineyard. And if you don’t drink (I don’t) they turn those yummy red grapes into some pretty amazing grape juice.
- The wines are bottled under the label “Marquis de Montmelas” and have been produced here since 1566.
- The nearest town is Villefranche-sur-Saône, and Lyon is half an hour’s drive away.
All photos by Anne Sterck