An Accessible Way to Learn About Wine at Bordeaux's Cité du Vin Museum
According to the website of France’s wine museum, La Cité du Vin, the building it is housed in “does not resemble any recognizable shape because it is an evocation of the soul of wine between the river and the city.” However, according to other sources it represents “the swirl in a wine glass,” or the “currents of the nearby Garonne River that has been so crucial to the Bordeaux wine region.”
This might seem like the words of a museum that takes itself too seriously, but in fact, the Cité du Vin is actually very accessible to visitors—even and perhaps especially to children and adults who aren’t that interested in the subject.
Since it opened in 2016, it has become a definitive stop during a trip to this region, though some find its 20 euro price of entry a bit steep. (Search online for advanced tickets, which are sometimes discounted. There is also a 16 Euro ticket for adults in certain circumstances).
It also is part of a larger neighborhood revitalization, as it sits perched over a post-industrial waterfront neighborhood, looking out on warehouses converted into shops and an upscale indoor marketplace called Les Halles de Bacalan.
I visited the museum on one of my first trips to Bordeaux, the closest big city to where I’m living for the academic year while I teach French. I loved that it presented every facet of wine—from growing to history to trade to tasting—in creative, visual, and interactive video and sensory exhibits.
The main attraction during the visit is the museum’s permanent space, for which you pick up a (necessary) audio guide, available in one of eight languages (French, English, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and Dutch). Through the exhibition space, you scan the audio guide to hear the appropriate translation of a video or audio. Following were a few of my favorite exhibits:
Flying Over the World’s Diverse Wine Countries
The permanent exhibit starts with panoramic, helicopter views of 20 of the world’s wine regions. Stunning images like Switzerland’s snow capped vineyards and China’s architecturally distinct chateaus convey the diversity of landscapes, cultures, and even vine growing arrangementss in the world’s wine regions.
Growing Wine in Regions Old and New
We then learn about wine growing from a series of videos of vintners, sellers, biodynamic farmers, and others in the production segment of the industry in several of the world’s most well-known wine regions—from young areas like Marlborough, New Zealand, and Napa Valley, California, to areas with Roman roots, like Bordeaux and Germany’s Mosel Valley.
Finally Learn What Terroir Means
After my visit to Cité du Vin, I am now pretty confident I understand what terroir means—the combination of soil and climate where vines are grown—thanks to the exhibit about the growing process. There’s also a nice video about the ritual dinner that marks the end of the wine harvest or vendanges for everyone on the vineyard.
You Get to Smell Things
To help us understand the obsession with the “nose” of the wine—its aroma— this exhibit lets us squeeze rubber attachments attached to bell jars of different scents, like berries, licorice, and wood shavings. I have no idea how the museum has created the scents, though I doubt they are the real thing. It seems like it would be tough for instance to constantly rotate in fresh berries.
Wine’s Amorous Culture
At the point at which I was about ready to collapse, I came to a large, donut shaped couch where visitors can lie back and stare up at a series of moving images showing and playing quotes from painters, composers, writers, and other artists who depicted “wine and love, even eroticism,” as the museum’s site puts it. Although I was a little distracted by the teenage boys snickering as the film ran, I could have fallen asleep here—in a good way.
The Commerce and History of Wine
An entertaining and somewhat comic Pixar-style animated movie depicts the wine trade through stories of ships setting sale for various markets, like England, Japan, and the United States.
In another even jokier video, we see a conversation between famous connoisseurs of wine, including Voltaire, Colette, Thomas Jefferson, and Winston Churchill.
And while the Cité du Vin is committed to representing the world beyond Bordeaux wines—which is what many reviewers have said makes the museum special among others like it—we get to learn about the famed region through a video that spans the planting of the first vineyards during Roman times to the region’s response to the phylloxera pest, to the ups and downs brought on by World Wars I and II.
Questions You Had About Wine But Were Always Afraid to Ask
Toward the end of he exhibit, you have a chance to view answers to common questions about wine, given by some of the world’s leading experts, including sommeliers, journalists, chefs, and even neurologists and lawyers. Want to know where should you should buy wine, how you should read wine labels, or whether wine really has health benefits? Take a seat here.
Yes, “Free” Tasting!
The museum is a sensory experience to the end, with the visit capped off by a glass of wine, included in the ticket, in a scenic tasting room called the Belvedere on the eighth floor of the museum. Choose from around 15 wines, including several Bordeaux options, as well as international choices, and look down at the city and its river, the Garonne, which has made this all possible.