"Most Dutch people, if you asked them what they would like to do if they won the lottery, they would like to live in France," says Margaret Rens. She and her husband, Ronald, both Dutch, followed their dream, moving not just to France, but into an 18th-century Bordeaux château.
In 2002, after selling their private-education business in the Netherlands, the Renses began looking for property in Bordeaux. Avid collectors of the region's wines for more than 25 years, they knew they'd happened on something special when they first laid eyes on Château Coulon Laurensac, in Entre-Deux-Mers. "I didn't even need to see the inside," Margaret recalls. "I knew that I wanted it."
On the east bank of the Garonne River, Coulon Laurensac was built in 1724, at a time when the only way to travel from this area to the city of Bordeaux was by boat; as a result, a number of wine estates were built along the river, a development that enabled access but made viticulture difficult. "You can't make a very good wine here," Margaret admits, citing the high water table and clay soils. Her research into the 12-acre property's history suggests that Coulon Laurensac's vines were ripped up around 1950. The structure has since been used only as a personal residence, and the former vineyards are now gardens.
Once Margaret, 51, Ronald, 58, and sons Roderick, 19, and Alexander, 16, had moved into their new home, they set to work fixing it up. First came the pressing needs of updating the heating, plumbing and electrical systems and reinforcing the roof. Next was the construction of six guest rooms so they could convert part of the house into a bed-and-breakfast. Margaret hated the kitchen, which at 130 square feet was small and cramped, with a hot plate for a stove. But with other, more urgent home projects under way, they didn't complete a full kitchen makeover until last year. (The original kitchen now serves as a pantry.)
The Renses wanted the kitchen to feel modern but knew they had to respect the integrity of the centuries-old edifice. The solution? An addition. Now connected to the main château via the former patio doors, so as not to make any new openings, is a 430-square-foot structure centered on a spacious, light-filled kitchen, flanked by windows on all sides and on the ceiling. "If you stand outside, it looks as if it's transparent between the existing château and the addition," Margaret notes.
"It's very nice to live in a château, but once you're inside, you don't see the beautiful facade and the beautiful stone," she says. So she was adamant: "I wanted to be able to see the château from the kitchen." To make matters more complicated, all of their renovations had to be approved by the French board of monuments, Les Architectes de Bâtiments de France. They enlisted Dutch architect Hein Koolstra for the project.
With state-of-the-art appliances and a large table at its center, the kitchen is as beautiful in its bright, clean simplicity as the main château is in its baroque elegance.
The bed-and-breakfast idea expanded into a larger business, the Bordeaux Wine Experience, which Margaret and Ronald have operated since 2003: a five-day series of winery tours for English speakers, including visits to châteaus Mouton-Rothschild, Lafite Rothschild, Yquem and Angélus. Guests stay at Coulon Laurensac, in the quarters initially envisioned for the B-and-B. With the new kitchen finished, Margaret has incorporated cooking classes into guests' itineraries.
Still, for the Rens family, complete domestic happiness comes when it's just the four of them. "The kitchen has really become the heart of the home," Margaret says.
When it comes to wine, she says, "We are very spoiled." They keep a 90-bottle wine fridge, by Gaggenau, in the kitchen for their drinking wines. The remaining several thousand bottles in their collection reside in a proper cellar elsewhere. Their oldest bottle? 1865 Château Palmer, which Margaret bought at auction as a gift for Ronald and had reconditioned at the château.
Ronald's favorite wine is Château Mouton-Rothschild, and they own every vintage back to 1972, complete with both the censored and uncensored versions of the controversial 1993 label by Balthus. Margaret favors Château Lagrange: "I like St.-Julien for its balance, somewhere between feminine Margaux and masculine Pauillac." Wines such as Château Pichon Longueville Lalande, Pichon-Longueville Baron and Lynch Bages might appear at any casual weeknight family dinner. "We are Left Bank lovers," she says.
Margaret continues to dig further into the cryptic history of Coulon Laurensac, and she wishes she could find a bottle of its wine. In the meantime, she and Ronald continue to pinch themselves: Do we really get to live here? "We didn't win the lottery," Margaret says, "but sometimes it feels like we did."