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 Cité 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 Cité anchors a growing tourist hub, which includes a huge, concrete German bunker that once housed U-boats during the Nazi occupation and is 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 Cité 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 Cité 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. From there, you are on your own, free to wander among the exhibits at your own pace, in your own fashion.
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 Perrières, 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.
The videos are so sharp that at one point I found I could not pay attention to the winemaker Wilhelm Haag of Fritz Haag, a fine riesling producer in the Mosel region of Germany, because the backdrop — the astoundingly steep Juffer Sonnenuhr vineyard — distracted me with its beauty.
Displays explain how vines and grapes were domesticated, how they occupied exalted mythological positions within ancient societies and how vines adapt to wildly different terrains.
Atmospheric enhancements penetrate almost unconsciously as you examine the exhibit: birds singing, thunder, the sound of a helicopter. Later, while learning about the use of barrels and how wine evolves in them over time, I suddenly became aware that I was smelling oak, used in the construction of the display.
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.
I especially enjoyed an animated presentation of how wine merchants through the ages challenged themselves over millenniums to transport wine overseas to customers who craved it. It’s not strictly realistic, as one character chides a god: “You’re all the same. You have eternity but no patience.”
The entire visit can take about two hours to complete, by which time you are ready for the glass of wine included with admission.
The permanent exhibition is geared toward anyone who wants to learn more about wine. La Cité also puts on two temporary exhibits a year, in conjunction with other wine regions, which go deeply into particular subjects like wine and art, or wine and music.
In its first year, Cazes said, 445,000 visitors came to the museum, which far surpassed initial projections.
One particularly hopeful sign for La Cité is that the city of Bordeaux is now attracting more visitors. Once drab and dirty, with few interesting places to visit or eat, Bordeaux has undergone a transformation in the last 15 years.
The facades of its 18th- and 19th-century architecture, once gray with filth, are now sparkling. An extensive new tram system offers an easy-to-use mass transit network, and the narrow streets of the old city are bustling with busy restaurants and wine bars. In truth, many of the wine bars are so hip that it’s much easier to find natural wines than it is to get a bottle of good old Bordeaux.
As for whether La Cité can help to bridge the divide between the city and its surrounding wine industry, tourism will play a central role in whether it succeeds. The museum will serve as a point of departure for tours of the Médoc, the historic area encompassing the famous areas of Margaux, St.-Julien and Pauillac. Some will go by bus. Others will leave by boat from La Cité, heading up the Garonne to the Gironde Estuary.
Tourism has not historically been encouraged in Bordeaux estates, Cazes said. Cellars were not equipped for visits and, she said, merchants in Bordeaux were concerned that visitors would buy wine directly from the producers rather than through their networks.
Indeed, the Bordeaux tourist board has a desk within La Cité, she said, and is eager to sell tickets for tours.