As one of the world’s most famous—and famously stuffy—old world viniculture regions, Bordeaux is not exactly known for its progressive attitudes toward wine. After all, this is a place where the majority of offerings are held to a stringent official classification that was established in 1855 by Napoleon III, no less.
And yet, the comprehensive new wine museum, Cité du Vin, that opened in Bordeaux this summer isn’t fussy, fusty, or pretentious. Quite the opposite: the museum is warm, welcoming, and (dare we say it) incredibly progressive.
Not for nothing has it been dubbed the “Guggenheim of Wine”. It’s a gorgeous, 10-floor, 43,000 square foot space overlooking the Garonne River, designed by Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières of XTU Architects to sculpturally recall wine swirling in a glass. With an 81-million euro ($117-million Canadian) price tag, it’s been an unqualified success in the three months since it opened, with 40,000 visitors in its first month alone.
The subversive genius of Cité du Vin is in the modern, forward-facing way it celebrates a timeless pleasure, aiming to bring a personal and tactile element to the often all-too-serious historical and cultural understanding of wine.
The museum is technologically advanced, with twenty multimedia installations in its permanent collection. Each visitor is given a handheld listening device designed to respond to a gentle tap against installations, allowing visitors to wander at their own pace. Highlights of the museum include an immersive tour of the world’s vineyards across three huge screens, a series of dangling iPads resembling vines pre-loaded with grape varietal content, an exploration of the religious history of wine across civilizations and through time, and a hands-on “Buffet of Five Senses” exhibit inviting guests to indulge in the non-drinking sensory experience of wine tasting, including an area featuring beautifully displayed (and sniff-able) wine notes of everything from pencil shavings and rubber to peppermint and berries. If it sounds weird, it’s not—it’s awesome.
The subversive genius of Cité du Vin is in the modern, forward-facing way it celebrates a timeless pleasure.
The Cité du Vin even explores the flip side of the world’s long-standing obsession with grape juice through its Wine and the Dark Side exhibition. Guests sit in a cocooning chair and watch debaucherous paintings flash by as surround-sound speakers pipe in Jon Hendricks singing “Gimme That Wine”. It ends with crooning lyrics from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s novella The Little Prince: “Why are you drinking? / In order to forget / Forget what? / To forget that I am ashamed.”
Of course, there’s also a bar on site (you can’t study wine without drinking it!) named Le Belvedere, with 360-degree panoramic views of Bordeaux, a chandelier made from thousands of bottles, and a 32–foot-long oak bar inviting guests to choose from twenty wines from around the world. Meanwhile, Restaurant Le 7 features seasonal and regional produce, as well as an electronic wine list with more than 500 wines from 50 countries.
In addition to the museum’s permanent collection, it will present rotating temporary installations each spring, summer, and fall. Upcoming plans include an exhibit devoted to the wines of the Georgian Republic, a spring 2017 retrospective on wine in bars and bistros in 19th and 20th century paintings, and a look at the relationship between music and wine from the Middle Ages through the 19th century.
Sylvie Cazes, president of the Fondation pour la culture et les civilizations du vin, believes that Cité du Vin is Bordeaux putting its best foot forward. “We have a beautiful city,” Cazes says, “but its all 18th and 19th century. We had to show that it looked into the future. Bordeaux has the best scientists, we have the most innovative wine growers. We had to not only say that we have the most innovative vineyards in the world, but we could also transform it into something that people could visit by showing it.”
She adds, “All these people who make wine and love wine, they have traditions, but they are also looking into the future.”
We’ll raise a glass to that.
Cité du Vin, 134 150 Quai de Bacalan, 33300 Bordeaux, France, +33 5 56 16 20 20.
All photos ©Photos Anaka/La Cité du Vin/XTU architects.