BORDEAUX, France >> Bordeaux, the region, is unrivaled historically as the greatest, most prodigious producer of fine wine in the world.
Bordeaux, the port city on the Garonne River, has played a crucial role as the center of the wine trade. Historically, though, it has lacked charm and lovability, and paradoxically, beyond its commercial ties, Bordeaux has had little connection with the wine producers in the growing regions that define the region and practically surround the city.
But an ambitious wine museum that opened in the city of Bordeaux on the west bank of the river in 2016 is working to change that. While capturing the worldwide culture of wine in a modern, immersive, multimedia style, La Cite du Vin hopes to serve as a critical link between the urban center of the wine trade and the myriad producers who have historically stood apart.
Simply as a cultural center, the City of Wine succeeds brilliantly in many ways. As a symbol, the curvaceous, contemporary building designed by XTU, a Parisian architecture firm, swirls up from the riverside not unlike the Guggenheim Museum flowing upward on staid Fifth Avenue. As a statement, it says that hidebound, conservative Bordeaux is no more.
Situated between the districts of Chartrons, the historic center of the wine trade, and Bacalan, a docks and manufacturing area, La Cite anchors a growing tourist hub, which includes a huge, concrete German bunker that once housed U-boats during the Nazi occupation now being transformed into an underground arts center.
The few wine museums I have visited around the world have never quite fired the imagination. The more ambitious the museum, the more transparently promotional it is for a particular region, a certain producer or the benefits of wine. The most successful have been the most local, which have simply presented artifacts without forced narratives.
But La Cite consciously avoids the outright promotion and celebration of Bordeaux. Instead, it takes an ecumenical approach, looking at the scope of wine culture worldwide and letting history — and the people who make the wines — speak largely for themselves.
“The challenge was to tell ourselves, ‘We’re not promoting wine, we’re promoting wine culture,’” said Sylvie Cazes, who was instrumental in pushing the Cité du Vin project forward both as a member of the Bordeaux City Council from 2008 to 2014, and as part of an important Bordeaux wine family that owns Château Lynch-Bages, among other properties.
Vinexpo Bordeaux, a vast wine trade exposition held every two years, was a particular inspiration, she said.
“Vinexpo works because all the wines of the world take part,” Cazes said. “That made it a success.”
La Cite encompasses 10 levels, including a wine bar, a retail shop, exhibition spaces, areas for special tastings, a theater (named for Thomas Jefferson) and, on the top floor, a panoramic restaurant with gorgeous views of the city.
But at its heart is a permanent exhibition of 19 themed spaces that provide an overview of the world’s vineyards, the development of domesticated grapevines, the intricacies of how wine is made, the nuances of tasting and drinking it, and historical presentations on transporting wine and enjoying it dating from 6000 B.C.
Ultimately, it poses the existential question of why humans have gone to such extreme efforts to create a beverage that is not essential to existence.
Upon arrival, visitors are issued a “companion du voyage,” individual electronic guides about the size of cellphones that connect directly with each stop along the tour, explaining in eight languages exactly what you are looking at and how to interact with it.
You might begin with a dizzying virtual helicopter tour of the world’s vineyards, a sweeping overview that spans the globe in about 15 minutes on three big, curved screens. Or you could watch winemakers discussing their vineyards, from the famous, like Dominique Lafon in Meursault Perrieres, one of the great sources of white Burgundy, to a monsignor at Alaverdi Monastery Wine Cellar in the country of Georgia, one of the cradles of wine civilization, where techniques have changed little over centuries.
Not all the exhibits are so straightforwardly historic. A buffet table offers the opportunity for “indulging in the sensory experience of wine tasting,” offering surprisingly effective examples of different aromas and textures, and the opportunity to test your nose if so inclined.
The entire visit can take about two hours to complete, by which time you are ready for the glass of wine included with admission.