Bordeaux's $93M Wine Center Takes Global Approach to Education
When the dramatic $93 million multimedia Cité du Vin (City of Wine) opened on the banks of the Garonne River in Bordeaux this June, it signaled an epic shift in the way the world’s most famous wine-making city thinks about wine. For centuries, the feeling of Bordeaux’s wine culture has been that connoisseurship is the prize of hard-earned and exigently disciplined study; it was a privilege neither accessible nor comprehensible to all comers. La Cité du Vin takes a dramatically friendlier and more inclusive approach to both consuming and understanding wine. It is designed to be as rewarding for the novice as it is for the expert.
It also provides previously flummoxed travelers and wine pilgrims with a glamorous 21st-century focal point for their interest in wine. Though Bordeaux has always had a variety of fine wine bars and other places in which to buy or sample wine, and a small wine museum—the charmingly musty Musée du Vin et du Négoce—visitors to the city never had an oenological epicenter to visit. Until now.
Designed by architects Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Des- mazières, founders of the Paris-based architectural firm XTU, the Cité du Vin is a horn-shaped, 180-foot-tall, 10-story metal- and-glass structure perched on the banks of the Garonne just north (and pretty much out of sight) of Bordeaux’s exquisite 18th-century heart. Marvel at its exterior and then head inside, where 19 permanent spaces, many of them interactive, cover various wine themes. The center has three tasting laboratories that include specially designed multisensory experiences for a total immersion in wine; a viewing platform; a boat dock from which to embark on visits to the wine chateaux up and down river; a temporary exhibition center; a wine bar and snack bar with an outdoor patio; a wine cellar with more than 800 different wines, including 200 from France, and a panoramic restaurant on the seventh floor that offers a superb variety of wines by-the-glass.
“La Cité du Vin is transformational for Bordeaux,” says Sylvie Cazes, president of the Foundation for Wine Culture and Civilizations, which operates La Cité du Vin, and the doyenne of one of the most famous wine-making families in the region. Her company, the Domaine Jean-Michel Cazes, owns a variety of the most prestigious vineyards in the Bordelais, including Chateau Lynch-Bages and Chateau Les Ormes de Pez, along with Le Chapon Fin, one of the city’s oldest and most distinguished restaurants.
The project originated in 2008 under the auspices of Bordeaux’s then mayor, Alain Juppé [France’s former prime minister]. “He recognized that wine tourism was vitally important for Bordeaux, both for economic reasons and also as an affirmation of the city’s viniferous identity,” explains Cazes. In 2009, a feasibility study group was created and the results were presented to the Bordeaux Interprofessional Wine Council and other partners in the project, including the Aquitaine region of which Bordeaux is the historic capital.
“The guiding idea for the project was the decision that the content of the cultural center would be international, or treat the wines of the world and not just the Bordelais or other regions of France, and this was overwhelmingly approved by all of the partners in the project,” Cazes says. “The point of La Cité is to present the complexity of wine in an appealingly simple way.”
What she found more delicate to expound upon during a recent pre-opening chat was the extent to which this decision was strikingly radical; Bordeaux is a city fiercely wedded to tradition. Or it had previously. One well-known local wine- maker observes, “There was a fair amount of pretty strident back-and-forth with regard to what the aims of the Cité du Vin should be, with some of the old guard insisting that it should be a showcase for Bordeaux wines, and this makes the final decision on the pedagogy of La Cité that much more surprising and innovative.”
The center also amplifies the new urban boldness of Bordeaux, which was an aristocratic sleeping beauty of a city before Alain Juppé launched a wholesale renovation of the town. Under Juppé, Bordeaux got a new tramway system with discreetly chic forest-green carriages, carefully cleaned thousands of its darkened facades and also re-landscaped its river embankment. Formerly the riverbanks through the city were an ancient venue of commerce or, more recently, a busy roadway. Today they are a stylish promenade of gardens and bike paths and walkways. Then, too, Cité du Vin will accelerate a shift in the city’s center of gravity—from its traditional core around the Palais de la Bourse and the Opera northward to Bassins à Flot, a rapidly developing new neighborhood in a former docklands district.
Where the Cité du Vin succeeds immediately is that a visit to the permanent exhibit will be just as interesting for you as for your 12-year-old. This is because the lighting and graphics of the displays are sophisticated and modern, but warm and approachable. Similarly, the themed content is presented in a layered, didactic way that achieves just the right pitch of seriousness without ever becoming academic or too complex.
The exhibit includes a section devoted to drinking responsibly. “The place that wine occupies in different cultures varies a lot, so of course we address the possible dangers of alcohol and drinking responsibly,” Cazes says. This message is communicated with great Gallic subtlety at the module “The Chair of Despair,” a reference to the most common result of overdrinking, the hangover. The stop includes an actual Chair of Despair, where you sit alone and listen as artists and poets who drank too much tell their woeful tales of the damage it did them. It is certainly thought provoking.
London-based Casson Mann, which specializes in the design of museum interiors and exhibition spaces, conceived the displays and content of the center in collaboration with the Cité du Vin’s staff. Visitors are taken through time and space with a state-of-the-art, hand-held, infrared audio guide that detects their location and automatically launches the appropriate content as they explore the civilizations of wine.
The first stop of any visit, “World Tour of Vineyards,” includes a short film shot from a helicopter by the same production team on five continents. The only continent where wine is not produced is Antarctica. Shown on three huge screens, it conveys the universality of wine and also highlights the dramatically different geographical and climactic regions where it’s produced. (Annually, La Cité showcases three temporary exhibitions and a different wine region. “The first guest of honor is Georgia, which has been making wine since 7 B.C.,” Cazes explains.)
Next up, “The Terroir Table” introduces the concept of winemaking’s geographical specificity. Where grapes are grown affects the flavors of the wine made from them. French winemakers cherish terroir, and it is also the natural structure upon which the classification of French vineyards is officially based. To wit, a great winemaker will have an encyclopedic knowledge of the differing personalities of the grapes produced by every square foot of his or her vineyards, and this knowledge underpins the blending that creates a truly magnificent wine. Terroir explains why French wines are marketed and sold according to the geographical regions from which they originate and are named for the farms where they were produced instead of by grape variety (cépage). New World wines made in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and Africa are often described by cépage.
“Our approach at La Cité du Vin is reportorial,” Cazes explains. “So there are no judgments offered in terms of different wine-production methods. It is our intention that the Cité become a place where people make connections and that it should be a place of learning, sharing and having a good time,” she says.
Answering a question about how La Cité du Vin addresses the qualitative differences between the world’s wine-producing regions, she continues, “I think that it’s in every winemaker’s best interests to sell to the most educated consumer possible.”
The “Terroir” segment is ultimately one of the most important. It’s comprised of video interviews with winemakers from 10 renowned wine regions, including Spain’s Rioja and Australia’s Barossa Valley, who explain how the geographical and climactic conditions in their particular area impact vines. This may sound dry but their passionate knowledge makes it extremely interesting.
Subsequent modules cover grape varieties, the wine trade, wine in history, wine in art and wine in love, or as part of the art of seduction. The most interactive exhibit is “The Five Senses Buffet.” Here, everyone becomes an expert-in-training on the “nose,” or scent, of wine. A series of glass bell jars contain different products wine experts commonly use to describe the perfume of a wine, including flowers, strawberries and wood shavings. Squeeze the rubber bulb attached to the display and you get a bracing burst of the scent of the product displayed.
At the end of the average two- hour-long visit to La Cité du Vin’s permanent exhibition, odds are you’ll be ready for a nice glass of wine. The Belvedere, on the eighth floor and the entrance to which is included in the ticket price, offers a selection of quaffs by the glass. For a more formal and meditative viniferous experience, book a table at Restaurant le 7, which has an expectedly excellent wine list. For a final surprise, stop by the wine shop. Run by Régis Deltil, a famous wine merchant from nearby Pessac, three-quarters of the wines on sale here come from countries other than France.