Celebrating the whole world of wine, the eye-catching and suitably-located Cité du Vin is a must-visit for wine enthusiasts of all levels, says Raymond Blake
The historic heart of Bordeaux has been given a magnificent facelift in recent years, so that the golden stone of the old buildings now glows like honeycomb in the sunshine, where once it was covered in grey grime. The Place de la Bourse is a delight, a must-see public space that ranks with the best in Europe. It would be wrong, however, to think of twenty-first century Bordeaux as a backward-looking museum piece that glorifies past deeds at the expense of current achievements. Today’s architectural gems are as worthy of note as anything from centuries past.
None more so than the Cité du Vin, which opened to much fanfare last year and which I visited before and after opening, most recently on a glorious spring day earlier this year. Walking from the Place, one follows the river, guided by the 77-metre pylons of the new Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas, which stand like sentinels guarding the marine entrance to the city. Barely 300 metres from the bridge and upstaging it for dramatic impact is the Cité, best described as an architectural swirl that mimics the swirl of wine in a decanter. Both are dramatic evocations of all that is good about the French spirit and that nation’s ability to execute major projects superbly well, combining form and function to dramatic effect.
Perhaps the building’s best feature is its exterior, that languorous sweep upwards trumps all of the interior spaces. Housed within is a bewildering collection of wine related displays and representations, a true metropolis. There’s a Disney-meets-wine feel to many of them and they may quickly become dated, though they lack for nothing by way of dramatic impact. If you are new to wine and want an all-enveloping, immersive experience, the Cité is the place to visit.
It is important to stress that it is not just Bordeaux but the whole world of wine that is celebrated in the Cité, yet it is appropriate that it is located there, for, if the wine world has a capital, it is Bordeaux. More importantly, Bordeaux is probably the only place where such an institution can succeed. Other, similarly conceived and executed wine visitor centres, such as London’s Vinopolis and Napa Valley’s Copia are no more. Perhaps the Cité’s secret will prove to be its embracing of the entire wine world without any jingoistic trumpeting of Bordeaux’s primacy; that world now has a centre as well as a capital.
The Cité du Vin is located in a district that is undergoing badly needed renewal. There are still neglected areas but they are being eliminated rapidly. What will not be eliminated are the massive, hulking U-Boat pens nearby, whose 30-feet thick concrete roofs preclude demolition. They are a reminder of grimmer times when the battle of the Atlantic was fought from here and there could hardly be a greater contrast between them and the svelte shape of the Cité. One is a reminder of a bellicose past, the other a symbol for what can be achieved by peaceful cooperative means. It may sound hifalutin, but the latter shows civilisation at its best and is a celebration of that. One hopes it proves successful.
Dublin’s Guinness Storehouse and the Cité du Vin may have little in common, yet it was the Gravity Bar at the former that inspired the Belvedere at the latter. It is the most dramatic of all the interior spaces, mainly thanks to an abundance of glittering reflective surfaces, including a ‘chandelier’ made of thousands of bottles and which stretches across the entire ceiling, and the 360º views of the city. Wines from across the globe can be sampled here, chosen from an ever-changing selection. The Belvedere is also available for rent as a function space. Indeed, the entire Cité can be hired for a private event for a couple of hundred of your closest friends.
BUY AND TRY
One of the Cité’s biggest attractions is the ground floor wine shop, which aims to stock at least one wine from every single country that produces it. And, since you asked, our own fair isle is represented by Thomas Walk, a private, not-open-to-visitors vineyard in Kinsale with strong links to Germany. Two wines were available on the day of my visit: a ‘Velvet’ and a ‘Ruby’, both from the 2013 vintage and both priced at €48. I couldn’t help feeling that the Bollinger at €49 or the Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2013 at €37 offered better value.
BEFORE YOU VISIT
To the best of my knowledge, they do not give masterclasses in website design at the Cité but a perusal of their own website almost qualifies as one. To describe it as comprehensive is a serious understatement – it is a fantastic resource and it speaks of people who know what they are on about, clued in and with a clear vision of what they want to achieve. An hour’s perusal nearly constitutes a visit in itself. Be sure to check it if you are planning a visit.
La Cité du Vin, 134-150 quai de Bacalan, 1 esplanade de Pontac, 33300 Bordeaux.
Tel: +33 (0)5 56 16 20 20; www.laciteduvin.com/en