I’m not a museum person, but I will definitely be back to France’s new wine museum in Bordeaux. There are some cultural places we all go to because we “have” to: the Louvre, Versailles and the Eiffel Tower. And while we may find some part of the visit that resonates with us, it’s easy to feel that we’ve just checked something off a must-see list.
That was not at all my experience at the Cité du Vin (the City of Wine). I admit, I was initially attracted to the beauty of the physical structure, designed by architects Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières from XTU Architects. The bold architectural design deserves a great deal of attention, but it didn’t take long for me to become more curious about the subject of wine, thanks to the museum’s approach to its raison d’être.
La Cité du Vin is, in fact, about the world of wine and culture. It is both a museum and a virtual journey through the ages to discover wine from around the world. Visitors come here to experience the life of wine.
On the first floor, there are several small, light-filled salons where practical workshops are held. For tasting, for education about production, and even for children to take their first steps in discovering and understanding wine. There’s also a very inviting reading room, where manuals, novels and comic books await. (Books in different languages are helpfully indicated by flags on their spines). A large window makes up the end wall, with a view of several of the most famous Bordelais monuments: the Garonne River, the Chaban Delmas bridge, and the Cathedral in the distance.
This floor is also the home of a temporary exhibit, currently focused on the construction of the Cité, with panoramic photos of the museum rising out of the ground. The space is perfect for the exhibit, stripped down with clean lines.
Yet it’s the permanent exhibition that will bring me back. My husband helped me to write this article by staying home with our energetic kids and I really want to see it with him. Our children are two and four years old, a little too young for this museum, but I do think for kids seven years old and up, a visit would be fun and educational.
There has been some criticism of the virtual nature of the Cité. I found that to be a remarkable strength. In the first place, the use of projected videos and constantly changing and interactive exhibits creates motion, energy and fluidity — characteristics of good wine. This emphasis on making the object reflect its subject is at the core of the Cité – even down to the building itself, which is designed to imitate the movement of wine in a decanter.
It was extremely satisfying to be able to choose what I heard and learn at my own pace. Due to the variety of interactive constructions, the different heights, small rooms and even wheelchair friendly-exhibits, the visitor isn’t forced to move from thing to thing in a herd. The sense of sort of being in line in order to move from one piece to another is completely shattered. You don’t spend the entire visit walking with the same clump of strangers.
The visit ends with a tasting on the eighth floor. (Don’t worry, there’s an elevator!) The tasting is very important. I wasn’t even halfway through the permanent exhibit when I texted my husband that we were having wine with dinner. The tasting room takes up the entire floor, just above one of the two restaurants in the Cité. It’s light and airy, with only a few stripes of yellow-hued glass reaching the top of the “carafe”, just like a real one.
There’s an interesting choice of wines, particularly from countries I didn’t know produced wine. The day of my visit, there were a number of French bottles to choose from, but also Greek, Algerian, Georgian, Chinese and Moldavian, which was my choice. The sommeliers were very knowledgeable and patient, helping the visitors try something new without negative surprises.
Practical matters for an enjoyable wine experience
- I’d suggest taking the tram over driving. There is a dedicated parking lot, but it’s a little confusing to find. Plus, if you take the tram, you can happily continue your dégustation in one of the restaurants without worrying about driving home.
- Check the website before you go. You can add a workshop or two to your visit.
- For those who might want to visit just before or after their arrival or departure from Bordeaux, there is a large Left Luggage area, with space for carry-on sized bags, motorcycle helmets or umbrellas.
- Be sure to hold on to your ticket — you’ll need it to go from exhibition to exhibition, and for your wine tasting!
- Visit the boutique. I’m usually wary of museum boutiques, but I’m headed back there this week for a birthday present for my mother-in-law. There are, of course, books and small gifts, but the range of clever, useful and unique wine-related products has removed an enormous amount of pressure for me come Christmas.
- And don’t forget the cave. I made a point to avoid it this visit, since the temptation to take home as many bottles as possible would have been too great.
So, don’t hesitate. The Cité du Vin is an enticing reason to visit one of France’s most renowned wine regions and an excellent way to spend an après-midi Bordelais. It could possibly become the country’s most popular new destination to see and taste!
La Cité du Vin
Address: 134 – 150 Quai de Bacalan, 33300 Bordeaux
Hours: Check the website for seasonal hours
Tel: +33 5 56 16 20 20