When you taste wine from a barrel, you’re experiencing it before it’s ready. The wine is still evolving, so you taste for its potential.
I think La Cité du Vin is still in its barrel stage.
Opened June 1, 2016 in the city of Bordeaux, La Cité du Vin—the City of Wine—touts itself as “a world of cultures,” “a unique place with multiple experiences,” and “a unique place devoted to the cultures of wine.” It steers clear of the word “museum” and uses “permanent tour” for the main attraction instead of “permanent exhibit.”
At 20€, the entrance fee is hefty. In addition to access to the permanent tour and the Belvedere, you get a “companion”—a smart guide in eight languages that enables an interactive visit—and a 50ml tasting of one wine. You also get headphones that stick out from your ears so you can hear any specific exhibit audio but also the sounds around you. The headphones aren’t adjustable, and neither is my head. It wasn’t a classic pairing.
There are five floors open to the public, including the ground floor with the reception area, gift shop, and wine bar and store; the first floor for temporary exhibits and educational space; the seventh floor restaurant; and the eighth floor Belvedere. The main visit area is the second floor, which comprises the permanent tour. Many of the exhibits are interactive, and your various senses are engaged throughout. And when you have technology dinosaurs who have trouble figuring out how the companion works with an exhibit—that may or may not have been me—there are many real, multilingual, and friendly guides who are ready, willing, and able to help.
The exhibits range from didactic and heavy on information to more entertaining with little attention span and brain power required—and everything in between. I spent little time at the Terroir Table because it’s on the didactic, dry side. I never tried Meet the Experts, another information-laden exhibit, because the 5 or 6 chairs available were filled every time I checked.
Part of Worlds of Wine—a series of globes highlighting different information by country—was interesting; part was a combination of perplexing and unintentionally funny. One globe illustrates the well-known “products” for each country. The United States features a hamburger, the Hollywood sign, and some retro pin-up style woman posing on a car. But never fear, there are some green grapes that appear in the south-east section of the country where all the best known U.S. wine originates. Fortunately, the rest of the exhibit includes more relevant information, such as rare grape varieties and where they reside worldwide.
The Metamorphoses of Wine section focuses on wine making. It achieves a better balance between education and engagement, but I found the different angles and heights of the exhibits a bit uncomfortable. I do like the fact that at the end of the interactive barrel-making display, you can add your name to the barrel you “made,” which remains part of the exhibit.
For something totally different, there is the Bacchus and Venus exhibit—a visual montage of how wine and love have been linked visually by artists. It even offers some peep holes for naughty visuals described as “eye-opening artworks…unsuitable for visitors under the age of 18.” There are many other sections, which include such things as the beauty found in the wine regions, the “dark side” of drinking, and Bordeaux-specific history.
The section I enjoyed the most was the Buffet of the Five Senses. Here you are able to smell the various aromas often attributed to wines—such as vanilla, lemon, raspberry, and leather—in isolation and combined in typical blends.
After the permanent tour, you must return to the ground floor to venture up to the eighth floor for the Belvedere, touted as a place “where you will discover a 360° view of Bordeaux whilst tasting a glass of world wine.” This is true. It’s also true that La Cité du Vin is in the middle of a developing area—currently more so an industrial park and construction site than anything else. The stuff worth gazing at is not close, including the historic part of Bordeaux city.
I did like the wine selection, which included many wines from France and one each from places like Argentina, Luxembourg, Moldova, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, and Switzerland. I enjoyed a red blend from Lebanon. I don’t know if you can purchase a glass of wine. My visit started in the afternoon, and I had just enough time to enjoy my free taste before closing.
Perusing the website, I see some of the planned evolution for La Cité du Vin. There are workshops for adults and children, which include, curiously, a virtual food and real wine pairing. With a restaurant onsite, I wonder why there can’t be a real food and real wine pairing. There’s even a napping opportunity. In future summers, a “guest wine region” will temporarily reside at La Cité du Vin, and plans are underway for shows and concerts, cinema screenings, meetings, and seminars to be held there.
It will be interesting to see how La Cité du Vin progresses from the barrel to the bottle to the consumption phase. There are many factors that will make the difference between its ability to realize its potential and the chance that it falls flat. Like the classic Bordeaux wines, it could take years before La Cité du Vin reaches its peak. Or we could find out that it’s corked.