La Cité du Vin (The City of Wine) opened its doors in June 2016. Just this month, it received its millionth visitor. Perhaps we were numbers 1,001,034 and 1,001,035. Maybe I went for the architecture; maybe we both went for the wine.
La Cité du Vin’s raison-d’être and mission are modest (this is Google’s and my translation from the website):
Wine is an inseparable part of the culture and living heritage of our country, but also of many other countries on five continents. It has made possible forging bonds between men, shaping landscapes, and generating myths, rituals and a true culture.
Since 5,500 years before our era, wine has been at the heart of human life. Wine sculpts our landscapes, accompanies our beliefs, our customs, our traditions, our social practices, and it invades our imaginations.
Universal, plural, it crosses the borders, the centuries, imposes everywhere its material and immaterial mark. It constantly reinvents itself in new forms, in multiple uses.
The Cité du Vin’s mission is to share this millennial culture with an international audience, to enlighten its meaning, to help protect and transmit this universal intangible heritage.
The building and its setting
The architecture firm XTU from Paris designed the building. The architects described the building this way:
This building does not resemble any recognizable shape because it is an evocation of the soul of wine between the river and the city… Every detail of the architecture evokes wine’s soul and liquid nature: seamless roundness, intangible and sensual.
We think it looks like a wine decanter, and why not?! The owner of the attractive bed & breakfast where we stayed in Bordeaux said that she sees a sock.
The building is now a monument in a major urban-redevelopment area on the site of the former industrial district of Les Forges along the banks of the Garonne River. The district is one big construction site, full of building cranes and a myriad of new residential and commercial buildings. We had read that Bordeaux is experiencing an exploding real estate market: the high-speed train line — TGV — between Paris and Bordeaux opened in July 2017, making it possible for Parisians to be in Bordeaux in just 2 hours. Now Bordeaux is an attractive outer, albeit upper-crust and increasingly unaffordable, suburb of Paris.
Have a glass of wine in the markets of the world
We selected an hour-long “polysensorial” wine-tasting experience. Along with other English-speaking visitors (from New Zealand, Ireland, Spain, and Germany), we sat at low tables around the edge of a circular room. Seamless photo montages slowly flowed around the room.
From time to time, a spritz of scented air came our way: was that the smell of leather, or barbecue, or tomatoes?
Our charming French host introduced four different glasses of wine for us, without telling us what each one was. Each of four wines was introduced by a seductive stream of images, sounds and smells from different places around the world. The first was Mediterranean areas (Provence, Greece, Italy). Another was scenes from Algeria. Our charming French host invited us to imagine the foods, tastes and experiences of these places as we sniffed and tasted each mystery wine. She did not tell us anything about the wines before we had some time to experience them on our own. She was splendid in assisting us to identify aromas and tastes. I loved it when she said that we come to each glass of wine with our own scent and taste memories and associations. So if I say the nose evokes pineapple, and you say banana, then that is just because of each of our own specific past experiences. Our host made it safe for everyone in the room to share their own associations.
The wines that we enjoyed, and their world-market contexts were:
- A rich vintage Prosecco from Valdobbiadene in the Veneto — Mediterranean markets
- A lightly sparkling Pinot Gris from Alsace — Markets along the Mekong River
- A Cabernet Sauvignon – Pinotage from South Africa — diverse Algerian scenes and foods
- A Malbec – Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Argentina — Andean barbecues and markets
The permanent self-guided tour
At the entrance of the main exhibit area, the staff presents you with an iPhone-like device and headphones. Throughout the exhibit areas, you just point the device at a dot symbol and the audio connects you to the exhibit. You can wander in any order and pace that you want. The exhibits flow in all directions beneath the organically shaped building shell.
The interactive displays helped connect scent experiences with their sources. We liked the refined steampunk aesthetic: The shiny glass covers and the brass tubes captivated us. The offered scents were clear and accurate (which is not always the case in this type of olfactory exhibit).
One section was entitled The Art of Living. Three long tables were set with virtual items, and surrounded by big chairs. We visitors were invited to sit at the table — along with two animated conversationalists in tall bright monitors. As they talked about experiencing wine and food at the social table, the table top animated and morphed to illustrate their points.
Other exhibit areas explored wine in cultures through history, highlighted vintners from many wine regions of the world, visited different terroirs, and helped new wine experiences to understand why wines have the colors, textures and aromas that they do.
At the end of the tour, we took the elevator to the Belvedere at the top where we were offered a choice of wines from which to select one to taste. Unlike so many places we have visited in France, here there were wines from around the world, not just from France. I selected a red wine from Armenia, because, well, have you ever had an Armenian wine? It was light, slight of aroma, and not very deep. But now I’ve tasted a wine from Armenia. Mike selected a Rioja from Spain, and was rewarded with a rich complex glass.
While it was inevitable to have wine bottles in the decor, the ceiling of the Belvedere was attractive anyway.
A few of the wines for sale in the “wine cellar.”
For us, the polysensorial wine tasting was the highlight. No big surprise, because any time we have the opportunity to explore wines, especially with a good guide (or salesperson), we enjoy ourselves. The collection of exhibits was very attractive and engaging; they were extremely well designed and made. But, at the end of the day, smelling, feeling and tasting wine is far more satisfying than just talking about it!
PS: A foodie dinner
We went to Restaurant Côte Rue for dinner the night after our Cité du Vin experience. We had selected the restaurant because of good reviews, the work of young chefs, and the fact that it was only a few-minute walk from our B&B. Each dish was beautifully presented, all were tasty, and a couple were notable. Here’s today’s food porn for your enjoyment.
This was our favorite. Complex when we explain it, but all the textures and flavors cooperated very well. The rose-red sauce at the right is a tomato-beet mousse. Beneath it is a layer of a creamy white cheese. And beneath that were three pieces of white fish, ceviche style, with a bit of caviar. To the left is an arrangement of slightly pickled tomatoes, beets, and radish slices. Neither of us is a fan of beets, but in this dish, the beets were gentle, and the combinations of beet, tomato, vinegar, creamy cheese, crunchy radish, and ceviche fish kept delighting our tongues.
Dorade (a white fish), with a verveine foam.
Roasted beef with young zucchini and carrots, and dried black olive bits.
The cheese course was just goat cheese. We have discovered that in many restaurants, if there is a cheese course, it can be just three or four slices of unremarkable cheese. Here, the chefs cannily chose a single creamy goat cheese from the Bordeaux region. They decorated it with tiny flowers and herb sprigs; this was not just to be pretty: the tart herbal field flavors complemented the cheese. Little fresh figs, simple almonds, and a delicious slightly crystalline local honey charmed us.
PPS: Our B&B
Our B&B was beautiful, and its owner / host, Béatrice, was full of life. Highly recommended: Bordeaux Wine Lodge. The breakfast table for just the two of us: