Bordeaux’s Extraordinary New Cité du Vin
Bordeaux's La Cité du Vin, a cultural center dedicated to everything wine, is the new must-visit destination for any wine lover traveling through Europe.
There’s still time to hop a plane to make the opening of Bordeaux’s brand new Cité du Vin wine museum. The opening ceremonies for the $80-million-plus project—to be attended by French President François Hollande, Minister of Culture Audrey Azoulay and Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppe, I was told—are taking place on the 31st. And even if you miss the opening, the Cité opens to the public at large on June 2.
But what is a Cité du Vin? That was what I wanted to know, so I recently took a behind-the-scenes, pre-opening tour with the museum’s president, Sylvie Cazes. I was prepared to be disappointed, as pretty much every wine museum I’ve ever been to has been a snooze or worse: dusty old presses, historic pictures of grape harvests, plaques with dispiriting or mind-numbingly technical text. Instead, I was pretty much blown away by how cool it was.
The first thing you notice about the Cité is the building itself; the architecture is inarguably striking. The fluid, shimmering building, intended to look like wine swirling in a glass (though some people feel it instead resembles a giant glass shoe), rises above a former no-man’s-land of warehouses, now rapidly gentrifying, in the south part of the city. Clad in 900 reflective glass panels and 2,500 gold-hued, lacquered aluminum panels, supported inside by 128 huge wooden spines, the structure stands in stark contrast to much of the city’s 18th century neoclassical architecture.
But the museum’s digital and interactive displays, created by the London design agency Casson-Mann, are even more impressive than the building itself. The 20 different multimedia installations that form the permanent exhibition add up to one of the most entertaining, inspiring explorations into what wine is—culturally, sensorily, historically, economically, you name it—that I’ve ever seen. Video images of winemakers or farmers from a range of countries answer visitors’ questions about wine; vast screens give flyover vistas of the world’s great wine regions; a fifty-seat boat interactively recreates the feel of being on a wine merchant’s voyage over several centuries; on blank white tables ingenious projectors display dinner settings, food, and wine lists, while sommeliers or chefs—Hélène Darroze, for instance—sit in chairs around the table, talking about wine and food. (They aren’t actually there, of course, but it feels as though they are.) The brilliance and creativity of the exhibit designs is remarkable, and as a result this part of the complex feels more like something a movie studio would have come up with than a “museum.”
The overall effect is to make wine fascinating and entertaining, rather than dull and daunting. The Cité also offers a 250-seat auditorium for performances and concerts, a free-of-charge reading room stocked with 1,200 works about wine in five different languages, a restaurant (of course), a wine shop offering more than 800 wines from more than 80 different countries (essentially, everywhere wine is made), and at the top of the tower a panoramic tasting area with views across the city of Bordeaux—and, one supposes, out into the entire world of wine.