A Rare Vintage: Chateaux-Hopping in Burgundy

A Rare Vintage: Chateaux-Hopping in Burgundy

The landscape of Burgundy is pockmarked with history.
Between its fairy-tale villages and rolling vineyards, this
wine-soaked French region is best revealed through its many


It was almost midnight by the time we arrived in Burgundy, still
cold from days spent in the mountains hiking the Alpine trail
around Mont Blanc, cutting through
. In the final days of hiking I could almost taste
the grapes as we came down from the mountains into
; I could smell their soil as we drove past Geneva,
Annecy and Dijon, and into the hot valley of Burgundy.

We arrived in Longecourt-en-Plaine when the night was already
deep in its summer sky, pulling our car silently to the front of
the Chateau de Longecourt-en-Plaine, a beautiful,
macabre behemoth of a home surrounded by a moat with swans silently
floating on its glass-like surface. It was almost too perfect. A
young woman emerged from the towering entrance, greeting us as if
arriving at the 14th-century chateau – her 14th-century chateau –
in the middle of the night was the most natural thing in the world.
Felicie led us noiselessly through a large dining room and into a
chamber behind a hidden door. Here in this gilded, slightly haunted
feeling room, we would sleep.

We arrived in Longecourt almost by accident, intrigued as much
by the chateau as by its central location in the valley of
Burgundy, situated equally between villages and vineyards.
Longecourt’s majesty ushered us into the dusty history of Burgundy,
a region remarkably still pockmarked from the ravages of the French
Revolution, with even the most pristine chateaux bearing the tolls
of headless statues and streaked facades. Felicie and her uncle
Roland, an elegant older bachelor who has made his life’s work the
survival and preservation of the history of the chateau, are our
window into this ancient, complicated, beautiful valley.

Felicie and Roland are people of Burgundy. Their histories can
be traced back centuries, their manners decidedly old world, but
their lives and struggles modern. Felicie attends university in
and dreams of Paris.
In the summers, and on school holidays, she returns to Longecourt,
her ancestral home which they’ve adapted into an Airbnb – the
orangery here is an event space available for rent.

Chateau de Longecourt-en-Plaine is their castle – proof of such
exists in the painted family tree crawling up the walls of the
chateau’s chapel – but it’s also decidedly laborious, daunting,
all-consuming work. The grounds alone would take a team of dozens
to remain pristine. The water in the moat has turned green, the
swans, meant to produce goslings, have proved to be two males who
continuously battle. Yet what I see is an imperfectly intact
chateau inhabited by a family that has claimed it for generations.
The building’s frescoes and exterior statues remain intact,
impervious to history and the passing of time. “We were lucky,”
Felicie tells me, “The Chateau was spared.”

So much of Burgundy is held together in this manner, a
confounding mix of beauty and decay, of ravishing natural and
architectural landscapes, and some 70,000 planted acres of vines
stretched out over 100 different appellations that determine the
quality and expense of the wine. The valley is cut by the
constraints of the Côte-d’Or, where Burgundy’s most expensive grand
and premier crux are grown. These are some of the most highly
sought after vintages in the world. Burgundy in late summer means
vines bursting with life, sagging under the weight of grapes ready
for a harvest that has just begun.

Leaving Longecourt-en-Plaine is like leaving friends who we may
never see again. We have been Felicie and Roland’s guests but we’ve
also seen their hidden world, their preserved history, witnessed
the struggle to keep it all alive, or at the very least, preserved.
We drive, stopping at Clos de Vougeot, a museum that gives an overview
of the complex and ancient history of Burgundy, with characteristic
bursting-at-the-seams French pride. A former abbey, the Clos de
Vougeot recounts the region’s beginning with grapes first planted
by the Gallo-Romans in the first and second centuries. From here we
move from tasting rooms to vineyards, places so small we feel we
alone must be discovering them. Tasting for free, we leave each

with a bottle of village appellation – to the French,
the roughest – but to us they taste like heaven.

The thread that connects each place is the mist that gathers in
each winemakers eyes when they speak of 2015 – the mythical year of
Burgundy wine making – when the weather, the climate, seemingly the
gods combined just so to produce the best wines they had seen in
years. If we close our eyes, we think we can taste the

We go further from any village into the countryside down
sweeping lanes cutting through cow pastures until we reach
Saint-Martin-de-Commune, a blink-and-you-miss-it village with a
storied chateau where Dutch-American couple Jitske and Matthew
welcome guests to the castle’s restored outbuildings now
functioning as both their home and their inn.

Jitske and Matthew have left the Chateau de Digoine purposefully
in ruins, a crumbling fairy tale of a place complete with romantic
– verging on schmaltzy – turrets added in the early 19th century.
Inside is a catacomb of rooms of peeling plaster and tiles. Stacks
of plates stand on a table, clothes hang on a wire, papers litter
the floor. A grand piano waits to be played. They live side by side
this perfect ruin, their Icelandic ponies pasturing outside, their
dogs and friends coming and going. It’s the outbuildings – the
barns, the orangery – they’ve renovated, meticulously curated to be
their family home and lodgings for guests. In the morning they
spread dozens of cheeses and meats and the ripest plums I’ve ever
seen out before us. France, Burgundy, Saint-Martin-de-Commune, the
tear-down chateau they purchased decades ago, is their adopted
kingdom. We eat in awe.

Somehow living next to, rather than living in a potentially
haunted castle seems a waste. We can admire its beauty, yet not
reside within in. They’ve preserved it but not restored it. They
are foreigners who are meticulously curating this experience for
themselves and others. I can’t help but want it lived in, people
dancing in the parlors, someone playing the piano on a particularly
hot afternoon, the bedrooms, too numerous to count, there for us
all. But this will only ever be a museum to a lost era of excess,
to a time in history to which none of us have a part.

This stretch of countryside is so removed from civilisation that
the milky way covers the sky, seemingly pierced by the turrets
hanging on by just a stone. For the days we stay here we exist with
Jitske and Matthew in the Burgundy of now, where there is no point
or reason to restore. This isn’t their history, it’s an adopted
land and the castle, almost a novelty. It seems wrong and haunting
yet altogether practical too. I have a lingering pit in my stomach
imagining Roland and Felicie here, the devastation of a long-loved
home slowly crumbling into the earth.

We’re close to Beaune, the majestic jewel-box town of Burgundy
that is largely taken over by tourists who pass through in the

. A few hours here – just enough for the Saturday market
and a tour to marvel at the architecture of Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune
and we’re longing for the countryside, for the fields already
golden with early autumn. Vault-de-Lugny will be our last stop
before Paris and before home.

We drive to Chateau de Vault-de-Lugny, an exquisitely restored
castle that now stands as one of the great hotels of Europe,
welcoming guests who arrive in brightly coloured Porsches and
Maserati – and us, with our hiking backpacks still dusty from the
Alps. The interior is classic but modern, they’ve freed themselves
of any obligations to Louis XIV furniture. Peacocks and pintards
roam the grounds. In the back an extensive garden bursts with
over-ripe tomatoes and still-firm pears. The garden supplies the
food for the spectacular restaurant that in itself is reason to be

The meal is the main event, served downstairs in the old
kitchen. Oysters from Brittany accented with edible flowers from
the garden, cucumber, apple, and kiwi jelly, followed by pasta with
Burgundy truffle. Permanent residents of the chateau are two
dogs – one too old and the other too young to
find the truffles that are served with
at dinner. But no matter. Next is trout with vegetables
from the garden with a 2015 premier crux. Dessert, the great, final
act is a mix of cheeses so fresh you can taste the cow. This is a
Tour de Burgundy and we don’t want it to end.

The night of this meal is warm and buggy. It’s already the end
of summer, the beginning of harvest. The leaves are beginning to
change. The juice of a tomato, eaten from the vine in the garden a
few hours before, still perfumes my fingers. Everything is so
fresh, so alive. It makes us want to drink deeper, stay awake,
pretend this life of eating our way through Burgundy, of driving
around castles, preserved and ruined, learning French one word at a
time, will continue. Ageless, impervious to the decades, or our
desire to keep this
fairy tale