Skip to main content

Bulbous, unexpected, strange, definitely fluid, luminous and curvy – some of the adjectives that come to mind at first view of the new La Cité du Vin in Bordeaux. It crouches beside the Garonne, looking shapewise a bit like a garden slug sunning itself by the river, but in colour like a mirror reflection of sky and water, or a swirl of wine in a glass.

Custom-printed glass and iridescent aluminum panels make up the outer skin of the building, catching the Bordeaux light. It’s an odd but arresting shape and unexpected in this city of mainly 18th century architecture, but I think that’s the point: the message that Bordeaux is alive and looking forward couldn’t be clearer.

The building's unusual shape is arresting in a city made up of mainly 18th century architecture.

The noble wine trade may be old and dignified, but here in the city that is generally perceived as the epicentre of wine production and wine history, this new wine “museum” signals a commitment not just to the celebration of wine culture and history but also to progress and technology.

And La Cité du Vin announces that forward thrust with an unmistakable French style. Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières, the architects from XTU, Paris, have designed a building that is a contemporary symbol of something as old as the first tipple, in the up-and-coming Bacalan area of Bordeaux.

This is not, however, a solemn temple to wine, as one might expect. La Cité is a place to explore, to discover, to experience and to play. And the wine story told here is not solely the narrative of Bordeaux, or even that of France. The reach is both international and historic, tracing the origins of wine making back to the first recorded imbibing of fermented liquids by humans, from up to 80 countries around the world.

La Cité is a place to explore, to discover, to experience and to play. (AFP/Getty /Mehdi Fedouach)

It’s a wine theme park for adults – though there is a children’s space as well. Obviously the little ones won’t be served wine, but there are interactive activities that involve the senses, history and myth.

For grownups, though, this is play time.

The adventure begins on the ground floor, with a huge reception area, a wine boutique, a wine cellar offering wines from around the world, a restaurant and a wine-tasting bar. Of interest to those who plan to explore the wine regions of Bordeaux is a booking desk where you can arrange tours, by car or bike, make appointments to visit wine chateaus, or figure out how to design a self-drive visit. There will even be a river tour, leaving from La Cité du Vin to explore the chateaus along the Garonne.

Resist the urge to shop or sip just yet, though, and head to the next level, where the fun begins. On this floor are the three tasting rooms, where groups can sip, spit and explore the flavours of wine. Each place has its own faucet and white spitting sink. A smaller tasting room accommodates 15 for a more intimate experience.

At the Table of Terroirs, visitors can activate screens to hear growers talk about their regions, to see maps unfold and pictures emerge. ((AFP/Getty /Mehdi Fedouach)

There is exhibition space here on this floor where curated temporary exhibits will all have some relationship to wine. The first installation is a display of photographs by Isabelle Rozenbaum, depicting the building process of La Cité du Vin, and paying homage to those who did the building and planning. There’s also the 250-seat Thomas Jefferson auditorium for concerts and screenings, a library and a reading room.

Continuing up the curving staircase, the visitor enters the interactive multi-sensory experience area, where every sense is appealed to through the latest museum technology, designed by Casson Mann who are also doing the work for Lascaux IV, opening this year.

Exhibition designer Gary Shelley, a director at Casson Mann, explained the objective of the interactive space. “We were tasked with taking what is essentially nerd content and making it accessible and enjoyable for the general public. The result is an exhibit without objects, one that concentrates on storytelling using digital technology. It is, I believe, a poetic experience.”

Tunning photos of wine regions are displayed on screens, moving from Switzerland to Oregon to the Okanagan to China. (AFP/Getty /Mehdi Fedouach)

Each area in the space is unique. The first was my favourite, a place where I could have lingered for a long time. Visitors sit on pale wooden benches while gorgeous photographs of wine regions around the world are displayed on three huge screens and also on the seating area itself. The visuals are stunning, moving slowly from Switzerland to Oregon to the Okanagan to China – and somehow very soothing.

We wear “open” headsets that are designed to allow the listener to hear input, which is available in eight different languages, as well as exterior conversations. A personal hand-held device activates the different centres throughout the space. During the tour, it triggers animations through an optical process based on infrared detectors or a motion detection system based on cameras.

And here’s where the games get super cool. At the Table of Terroirs, if you point the hand-held device at the topographical map of a wine-growing area, a book opens, each of its pages another screen that can be activated. Growers from each wine district talk about their regions, maps unfold, pictures emerge and float across the map – it’s totally immersive.

Another station allows you to spin a massive globe and learn about the spread of wine vines around the world, and the international wine trade.

Before you stock up on bottles at the boutique, you can immerse yourself in the aromas of wine at the ‘Five Senses buffet.’ (AFP/Getty Images / MEHDI FEDOUACH)

You can smell the different aromas associated with wine – barn smell, pencil shavings, roses, chocolate – through bell jars and copper tubes that look like curvy trumpets at the Five Senses buffet, or put your head into a bulbous aluminum shape to smell the fermentation process and hear the sounds of wine production.

In the Bacchus and Venus room, visitors can lean back on a red velvet couch to watch a ceiling screen that projects the sights and sounds of love and wine – music, poetry, billet-douxs – while rose petals seem to drop from the sky. You can sit at a virtual dinner table and join a discussion about wine and food, or ask questions of wine experts. There are 19 modules altogether, each one an interactive slice of wine culture. The range of experience is broad and compelling.

Shelley’s personal enjoyment is obvious as he demonstrates another module, this one a series of wooden stylized wine bottles inside of which a circular screen appears to be a swirl of wine. Pass your hands over the screen and the wine swirls, then solidifies into pictures that tell the story of the particular wine – with voiceover discussing its background, characteristics, pairings and producers.

People take part in a digital exhibit at La Cite du Vin on its opening day, June 1. (AFP/Getty /Mehdi Fedouach)

On the seventh floor is Le 7, an elegant restaurant with views of the city and the Port of the Moon. There are 500 wines on the wine list, half the selection from various regions of the world and the rest from France, highlighted by Bordeaux “musts,” like Petrus 2006. There are also cooking classes and wine pairings with the sommelier available.

At the very top is the Belvedere, where ticket holders can choose a glass of wine, included in the ticket price, from 20 different wines, and enjoy a 360-degree view of Bordeaux, the river, and the surrounding countryside.

Over lunch in Le 7, Sylvie Cazes, the president of the Fondation Pour La Culture et Les Civilisations du Vin, explained to me the genesis of La Cité, an idea that germinated 20 years ago and is finally being realized. It evolved from its original concept of a place about Bordeaux wine to a museum of international wine culture.

Ticket holders can choose a glass of wine, included in the ticket price, from 20 different wines.

“Who is this building designed for?” I ask her.

“It is for the producers of wine, the lovers of wine – in fact, everyone who is interested in and shares the culture and history and adventure of the world of wine,” she says.

It is definitely a shrine to wine, albeit one with wit, whimsy and style, and one that is sure to please the palate of wine lovers and wine tourists.

The writer was a guest of the Foundation for Wine Culture and Civilization