In 1985, 21-year-old Amelie Drummond, dressed in a crinoline gown spangled with gold, was leaning against the wall of a ballroom in a vast house in Germany when she spotted someone staring at her. Across the room, which was filled with the great and the good of Europe, was a tall and lean man wearing a daffodil-yellow tailcoat with red velvet collar and cuffs, full white tie and hunting boots - the evening wear of the Normandy hunting pack, the Rallye du Mont Malgré Tout. In his hand was a silver-topped malacca cane. Moments later, they were chatting. And a few moments after that, Amelie decided she was talking to the man she would one day marry.
Amelie was brought up in Megginch Castle in Perthshire, which was filled with whippets, dressing-up cupboards and birds of prey. Her father Humphrey Drummond was a captain in the mountain artillery and a keen falconer; her mother Cherry was a formidable woman and, as Baroness Strange, a much loved member of the House of Lords, whose work for war widows is still remembered. There were six children in the family, three of whom Cherry home-schooled. Creature comforts, it is probably fair to say, were not high on the list of priorities, but a sense of adventure and endeavour was encouraged.
When she returned home to Megginch from the ball in Germany - following a heady week in Paris with the dashing huntsman - Amelie had news that she was desperate to share with her parents. 'They were watching a television programme about Glamis Castle and said I had to wait until it had finished before I could speak to them,' she recalls. Following an agonising wait of 40 minutes, Amelie was at last able to reveal that she had met Philippe Maurice de MacMahon, the 4th Duc de Magenta, and that she would be leaving university at once to live with him in his chateau in France.
Despite any reservations her parents had about this sudden development, they decided to support her. Within weeks, Amelie had left her studies in psychology at City of London Polytechnic, packed up her things and set off for Burgundy and the beautiful Château de Sully.
Sully is one of the largest chateaux in the region. Although its origins date back to the Roman era, the house grew into its current magnificence during the sixteenth century in the hands of the Saulx Tavannes family. Two centuries on, Sully passed to Charlotte le Belin, dame d'Eguilly, who had married an Irish doctor called John MacMahon. His ancient lineage was recognised by Louis XV and he was given the right to use the title Marquis d'Eguilly, which became Marquis de MacMahon. His grandson Maurice was granted the title Duc de Magenta as a reward for his victories on the battlefield in the mid-nineteenth century. Maurice later became the third President of the French Republic (1873-1879).
Thirty years after that meeting in the ballroom, Amelie, who became the Duchesse de Magenta when she married in 1990, remains the proud chatelaine of Sully. It was here, with its moat, countless bedrooms and wonderful state rooms, stunning courtyards and vast and varied outbuildings, that she and Philippe, who died in 2002, raised their two children. Pélagie, 25, now works for an events company in London, and Maurice, 23, the 5th Duc de Magenta and 10th Marquis de MacMahon, is currently in Lyon working and studying to become an ingénieur. 'He's at one of France's most prestigious ecoles Arts et Métiers,' says Amelie. 'And, yes, his mother is extremely proud!' Keeping Amelie company while her children are away are her dogs. Her fox terrier, Gyulai, was named after the Hungarian commander of the Austrian troops that Maréchal Maurice de MacMahon defeated at the battle of Magenta in 1859.
In order to ensure the future of the chateau, Amelie opens it to about 25,000 visitors each year. She puts on lively tours and Hallowe'en visits for children, and for the past 12 years, she has enlisted the skills of the performer Thomas Volatier, a man with great talent for telling a story, making people laugh and generally making visitors see things differently. 'It's far better than having them trudging round with speakers in their ears, eyes glazing over at yet another list of dates or a history lesson,' she says. There are also gala evenings, celebratory dinners and all kinds of spectacles to keep the place brimming.
Then there are the chateau's premier cru vineyards, in nearby Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet, which were acquired by Philippe over a period of time starting in 1967 and are the estate's principal source of income. Thanks to Philippe's foresight, Amelie attended wine school. She is deeply knowledgeable and oversees the whole process - from the grape-picking to the bottling, labelling, storing and, most importantly, selling. Income from the vines, however, is hard won. 'Since 2003, the business of wine production has become much more perilous,' Amelie says. 'We are frequently at the mercy of hailstorms, which cause huge damage to the vines, and we can no longer predict when the vendanges harvest will take place. Sometimes it is as early as August and other times we do not pick the grapes until October.' Annual output can vary from five to 10,000 bottles, of which 90 per cent is exported to the US and Japan.
Happily, since 2012, Amelie has been able to call on her sister Charlotte Drummond to help with the running of the estate. Charlotte - who had a long, successful career, principally working for the biotechnology firm Porton International - is quick to praise her sister. 'A couple of years ago, I went with Amelie to pick up an award she had been given by the VMF (Vieilles Maisons Françaises) for a restoration project she had overseen. She was given a standing ovation - and it was then I understood just what an inspiration she is.'
Ask Amelie herself whether she is daunted by her continued work at Sully and her answer is typically robust. 'It is like playing pass the parcel, only in reverse,' she says. 'I am holding this great gift in my hands and I can't wait to pass it on. Meanwhile, I just hope I am not the one to drop it.' Were he alive today to hear such words, Philippe de Magenta - a man hugely proud of his heritage - would surely feel thankful that at that costume ball in Germany, he went up to talk to the girl in the Georgette Heyer crinoline.
Chateau de Sully: 00-33-385 820 986; | Duchesse de Magenta wines are available in the UK through Thomas Panton Wine Merchants: 01666-503088;
Taken from the October 2015 issue of House & Garden.