“Il m’est arrivé d’affirmer ‘La Cité du Vin’ sera mon Guggenheim.” “I have said that the Cité du Vin will be my Guggenheim.” — Alain Juppé, Mayor of Bordeaux
As I have written recently in France Today, Bordeaux  is on a long march to becoming not only a more powerful French city but also a city that can develop a reputation on an international stage. There could not be a more perfect emblem for the 21st-century ambitions and aspirations of Bordeaux than the newly opened landmark attraction , La Cité du Vin.
It is a symbol of regeneration. Architecturally bold and extravagant, La Cité du Vin rises confidently from the banks of the Garonne river and dominates the vast Bassin à Flot ecodistrict, a construction site which will one day house an entire new district: 700,000 square metres of apartments, offices, shopping centres, hotels and public facilities only six stops by tram from the Place des Quinconces in the heart of Bordeaux.
It is a symbol of economic finesse. A multi-faceted public-private finance initiative, La Cité has cleverly assembled the expertise, financial and creative resources of numerous partners, including governmental bodies, corporate patrons from the worlds of building and wine, in addition to well-connected individuals. Together they act as a powerful group of financiers, supporters, sponsors and patrons.
Bordeaux is, of course, one of the most famous – arguably the most famous – name in the world of wine , and so a new museum showcasing the region’s history and acclaimed wines was always going to be a popular attraction. But this would have been too narrow an outlook for the founders: the vision for La Cité is truly international and has broad horizons. It is a celebration of all wines, from all cultures, and it opens its arms to the world to come and discover a unique experience in a spirit of inclusiveness.
Arriving by tram or car there’s no denying you have arrived in a colossal development zone. Old port buildings lie neglected, stretches of water and quay await refreshment, and foundations are going in for new hotels and apartments. It’s a maze of temporary roads, cranes and construction equipment. In the midst of this chaos the extraordinary Cité du Vin building looks out of place, like a belle at the ball surrounded by scruffy attendants. But still you notice the inherent beauty – come back again in a few years and she will be surrounded by sleek new buildings, restored docksides, cafés, restaurants, hotels and a vibrant community.
To say you are going to visit a “museum of wine” does not begin to do justice to what has been created here. This project has got soul. The vision was always ambitious: to celebrate all the dimensions of mankind’s long history and pleasure in the company of wine but to do so in a vibrant, uplifting and engaging manner. Conscious, perhaps, of the reputation that wine has in some quarters of being elitist and snobby, the goal has been to create a multi-sensory experience that would reveal all the subtle stories and nuances of the world of wine, without being over-intellectual, self-reverential or inward-looking.
This vision needed to be delivered as a classic architectural project, to commission a building that would be a proud landmark in the growing Bordeaux skyline, one that would somehow represent the values set down by the founders. But, equally challenging, the visitor experience needed to be exceptional and memorable, of a quality to match the building itself. The outcome of the selection process was that Paris architects XTU won the tender for the building and worked in partnership with British museum designers Casson Mann for the interior visitor experience.
How to describe the audacious design  of La Cité du Vin? It is curvy, sensuous and fluid. It seems to transform itself depending on your viewpoints and the light conditions, sometimes resembling a silky swirl of straw-coloured wine in a goblet and other times a whorled crustacean emerging from the muddy riverbank. The visual references are strongly linked to the river and the sea, the sinuous outer metal and glass curves and interior wooden arches reflecting the bends in the Garonne and the 128 laminated wooden spines rising up 55 metres through the core of the building like the masts of a wooden sailing ship, until they emerge outside the building at the observation deck level. The dazzling outer skin consists of custom printed glass panels in varying colours and lacquered, iridescent aluminium panels in gold. No wonder the appearance changes according to the time of day and the level of sunlight or cloud.
Inside are located the 19 areas of the permanent exhibition, set at different levels and offering a huge range of visitor experiences. These also have a unique architectural identity according to their purpose, some playful and colourful, others adding drama, such as the suspended wooden tubes in the Thomas Jefferson auditorium, the belvedere with its mirrored bottle ceiling and the immersive multi-sensory room with its curved glass walls printed with large, wine-based designs. These spectacular interiors have created the perfect context and backdrop for museum design experts Casson Mann to create the “scenography” that becomes the visitor experience.
And what an experience it is! Two hours is recommended to visit the museum but, sore feet aside, one could easily lose a day in this temple to wine.
Within the chambers of the majestic seashell you are able to wander freely at your own pace, discovering the 19 themed “modules” which celebrate and inform the visitor about all aspects of wine. Your clever, hand-held digital guide knows where you are and automatically starts as you approach an exhibit (eight languages available). The combination of beautifully crafted materials, spectacular visuals and state-of-the-art multimedia and interactive technology is awe-inspiring. There is much to be learned, yet the atmosphere is friendly, playful and non-studious.
Véronique Lemoine, Scientific Manager of the Foundation for Wine Culture and Civilisations, says, “The permanent tour is an invitation to a voyage of discovery, a journey through time and space exploring the evolution of wine and its civilisations. Young and old alike will get to grips with the very rich imaginary world of wine and how it has affected the societies and regions of the globe for millennia, from 6,000 BC to the present day. From legends, terroirs and landscapes to graphic arts, architecture and literature, the culture of wine is an extraordinary epic which has inspired and shaped the lives of humans for centuries.”
La table des terroirs is a tactile activity station in which an interactive, scenic landscape comes to life beneath your fingers, with winemakers sharing the secrets of wine across the world. Le banquet des hommes illustres is a very special dinner party with illustrious personages from throughout the ages discussing their favourite wines. In the company of Pierre Arditi, figures such as Voltaire, Churchill, Napoleon and Colette share stories of wines which no longer exist, or else of legendary nectars whose reputation has survived undimmed through the ages. Another module allows you to step aboard a 50-seater boat and embark upon a fantastical journey across the tides of history, following the galleys and barges of generations of wine merchants in their epic voyage to bring wine to the four corners of the earth.
The experiences are truly immersive and interactive, without being over-clever and relying too much on technology. For example, there’s a “buffet of the five senses” where, with the help of some good old-fashioned equipment, the visitor can delight in the aromas, colours and flavours of wine.
And when your sensory faculties have reached overload, or if all this wine knowledge has given you a thirst, there’s plenty of eating and drinking available on site. First, for wine buffs, on the eighth floor lies the belvedere, a tasting room like no other. Choose from over 20 wines from around the world and savuor not only your dégustation but also the 360-degree views across the river and towards Bordeaux from the windows and viewing deck. And down in Latitude 20 you’ll discover a cellar with over 800 wines, 200 from France and 600 international, reflecting once again the determination to make La Cité a celebration of world wine and not just local or French. There’s also a wine bar, snack bar and a boutique. Restaurant Le 7 offers a gastronomic menu with indoor and outdoor seating to make the most of the views. (Book ahead!)
Education and Entertainment
In addition to the permanent exhibition don’t forget to look at the schedule of workshops and screenings which take place during the day. These offer another level of education and entertainment around the history and know-how of wine and are designed to be suitable for young and old, from novices to enlightened enthusiasts. I plan to return to try the multi-sensory workshop which takes place in a totally dedicated immersive room where visitors are invited to enjoy a new tasting experience. It uses 360-degree images, lights, sounds and smells for a tasting which promises to awaken all the senses.
Each year will also see three temporary cultural exhibitions. Photographic artist Isabelle Rozenbaum currently displays 88 photographic prints presenting her view of the construction adventure of La Cité du Vin. (Until 8 January 2017.)
The French talk a lot about the importance of patrimoine – cultural heritage – and rightly so, for they have plenty of it to celebrate and protect. Here, the city of Bordeaux (where better?) has boldly taken upon itself a mission to promote the global patrimoine of wine. And they have succeeded on a monumental scale, especially because it has been conceived and presented on the basis that wine is a universal heritage – at the Cité du Vin they have consciously reached out to embrace the wine and related history of many other cultures. It also one of the finest examples of what a contemporary museum should be – full of soul and joy, accessible to all ages, whether wine enthusiasts or just tourists. A visit here will never disappoint.
From France Today magazine
Standard tickets: Visit to the permanent tour with the hand-held guide in eight languages, access to the high point of La Cité du Vin (the belvedere) and a tasting of a glass of wine on the belvedere from a selection of 20 global wines. Full adult price: €20
Temporary exhibition ticket: Full adult price: €8
Workshop ticket: Nine themes offering a variety of tasting experiences, such as the multi-sensory experience. Full adult price: from €15
For more information, visit www.laciteduvin.com