OK, granted, this is not exactly typical Invisible Bordeaux material, given that since opening in 2016 the city’s wine museum has rap...

Is the Cité du Vin really any good?

OK, granted, this is not exactly typical Invisible Bordeaux material, given that since opening in 2016 the city’s wine museum has rapidly established itself as one of Bordeaux’s essential sights and stops on the tourist circuit. But, despite a number of whistle-stop tours when holding corporate events there, I had never taken the time out to visit the place properly. I did finally achieve a full-on visit a few days ago and I thought the blog readership might appreciate an independent user review and get an idea of whether the Cité du Vin is, indeed, any good. 

But, first, a disclaimer: this is not going to be a piece about the museum’s unorthodox open-to-interpretation curve-heavy architectural design (the work of Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières of the international architecture agency XTU). I will also most definitely not be writing about the vital statistics of the 55-metre-tall building, with its 918 coloured glass and 2,300 aluminium panels. Nor will I be talking about the Cité’s 250-capacity auditorium, or amenities such as its quiet reading room or swish seventh-floor restaurant. This, dear reader, will be solely focused on my tour of the permanent exhibition itself (as dreamt up by the London-based museum and exhibition designers Casson Mann), which is what most visitors come to see.

And to start off, those visitors are kitted out with a smartphone-style “companion” and a headset, the design of which conveniently leaves a little bit of personal space between the speakers and one’s ears, to retain at least a certain sense of what's going on in the outside world. The companion/headset combination is the essential accessory to be able to enjoy the full Cité du Vin experience, as audio is fed into the earphones throughout, and the electronic device is in essence a personal guide, also offering additional resources and activities along the way.

The opening "World wine tour" video exhibit.
Then visitors are released into the exhibition proper. While there is no set itinerary, there are six clear sections to explore at will: “Wine regions of the world”, “From the vine to the glass”, “Wine and civilization”, “Wine and you”, “Wine and the imagination”, and, logically enough, a whole exhibit focused on Bordeaux. The natural starting point is the area focused on “Wine regions of the world”, the first highlight of which is a stunning multi-screen film that compiles drone footage showing vineyards and wine-growing properties all round the world. That segues quite nicely into one of that first area’s other highlights, a set of multimedia “Terroir tables”, in which winemakers from a wide range of countries share video testimonials of their personal stories and the specifics of their respective territories. It’s all very interesting and even strangely moving.

Winemaker testimonials beamed in from all over the world to the "Terroir table".
The “From the vine to the glass” section delves into the nitty-gritty of wine production, from the diverse characteristics and qualities of different grape varieties, to the techniques and equipment involved in transforming the grapes, and developing and nurturing the wine, to the different types of end product that can be achieved. The stories are told through a number of touchscreen devices, and even some unusual camera obscura-style dish-shaped screens where visitors swish their hands from side to side to interact with the information on offer.

As might be expected, the “Wine and civilization” area extends beyond the product itself to the surrounding economy and culture, as illustrated by a so-called “Trend wall” that covers aspects such as marketing and packaging, and by the large Disneyland ride-like “All aboard” exhibit where visitors are sat in the dark, surrounded by a massive curved screen and under the illusion that they have travelled several centuries back in time and have boarded merchant ships in the company of sailors as they criss-cross the seven seas. A lot of energy and a high-risk sense of adventure clearly went into the business of exporting wine!

Setting sail for the "All aboard!" attraction.
In the “Wine and you” section, there is a distinct shift towards the codes and etiquette associated with the consumption of wine. Exhibits include the “Banquet of legends” short widescreen film where famous wine-lovers from various periods throughout history magically come together; much wine-related mirth and merriment ensues. There’s Napoleon Bonaparte and Colette, Marie Curie, Churchill, Voltaire and Hitchcock, as well as the third US president Thomas Jefferson, who surprisingly at no time alludes to his previous (also wine-related) appearance on the Invisible Bordeaux blog.

Legendary wine-loving figures surrounding French actor Pierre Arditi, who appears as himself.
Next up are the twin “Art of living” and “Meet the experts” attractions, where authorities appear on big vertical screens to share their thoughts on wine-related rituals and give their top tips on wine selection, tasting, etc. The final facet of that section, the hands-on “Buffet of the five senses” is arguably the most fun of the whole Cité, with a whole host of objects to observe, scratch, squeeze, smell, listen to and feel, to sharpen all senses!

French media personality Ariane Massenet appears life-size on screen to talk wine and the "art of living". 
The all-squeezing, all-sniffing "buffet of the five senses".
Then the “Wine and the imagination” area brings visitors back down to earth with a very earnest and somewhat arty bump, firstly with “Divine wine”, an obscure other-worldly video installation, then with “Bacchus and Venus”, a bizarre private club-esque setup behind curtains where visitors recline on a comfortable, near-horizontal sofa and stare upwards at a circular screen where high art is projected to the sounds of atmospheric music. It makes you want to stroke your chin and wonder what it’s all about and probably seemed like a good idea to somebody somewhere.

Finally, the Bordeaux section, predictably enough, recounts the city’s “epic wine tale” on a large video wall, complete with its highs and lows, and delivers interactive panels so that visitors can familiarize themselves with the local appellations and the development of the wine industry throughout the centuries. Oh, and let's not forget that admission includes a glass of wine up on the eighth floor in the “Belvedere” bar, and that the wine tastes all the better when combined with the spectacular panoramic view over the city from the terrace walkway which stretches around the building.

The Belvedere bar in all its glory.
Just a small part of the splendid panoramic view over the city.
So, what works, and what doesn’t? Let’s start with the downsides. First of all, it must be said that visiting the Cité du Vin can easily become a very solitary experience. The headset concept is great but it does mean the place turns into something resembling one of those silent discos where everybody is dancing to a different tune in their earphones. Furthermore, it may have been a case of poor organization on my part, but when that was coupled with the lack of a set circuit, I for one regularly lost track of where the rest of my party was, and what started out as a communal project sometimes left me feeling more like a child lost in a supermarket. Speaking of kids… I know there is a dedicated kids’ tour that mainly takes in the fun, touchy-feely exhibits, but I do reckon it must be difficult for parents and children alike to satisfactorily synchronise their visit. As for teenagers, let’s not go there, I’m really not sure it’s a place for them but will gladly stand corrected if you know otherwise. The in-your-face technical wizardry is amazing, but you do go home feeling a few more hands-on activities would have been appreciated. And, as you will have gathered, one or two of the installations are a bit high-brow and not exactly brimming over with fun, but it takes all sorts!

Hello clouds, hello trees, it's the slightly strange "Bacchus and Venus" installation.
On the plus side, the sheer breadth of the formats and concepts of what is showcased is hugely impressive, and the tailor-made content that is piped into the exhibits is genuinely top quality and seamlessly consistent in terms of tone and approach. The scope of what is presented stretches way beyond Bordeaux, and this big-picture vantage point makes for a highly informative visit where even the most advanced wine connoisseurs will learn something new and find plenty to enjoy. And the bottom line is that however long you spend visiting the permanent exhibition, you can’t help feeling there’s still plenty more to view. It would no doubt take several visits to really digest everything that is on offer.

The takeaway is that the Cité du Vin truly is a world-class exhibition. It could be argued that the world of wine certainly deserved something as unusual, as creative and as imaginative as the Cité du Vin, and surely Bordeaux can be saluted for having delivered it.

> La Cité du Vin, esplanade de Pontac, 134 quai de Bacalan, Bordeaux
> Official Cité du Vin website: www.laciteduvin.com

> Ce dossier est également disponible en français !

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