Inside Cité du Vin, Bordeaux’s $90-Million Bet

Nick Guttridge

The French winemaking capital’s new architectural showpiece falls short—but it’s what’s inside that counts.

“This building does not resemble any recognizable shape because it is an evocation of the soul of wine between the [Garonne] river and the city [of Bordeaux].” Or at least, that is how the young Paris-based firm XTU Architects likes to think of its latest project: Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin, a $90 million, city-owned cultural institution devoted to all things wine. Opened early last month, the snake-like, glinting design veers dramatically off-piste from the neoclassical splendor the city is celebrated for. Sinuous glass and aluminum panels curve down the surface of the sculptural tower onto a donut ring of a base—a shape that (despite the firm’s caveat) inspires many comparisons, indeed: The look of wine swirling inside a decanter; the silhouette of the root of a vine; or, in this city of stone, a sore thumb.

“La Cité du Vin will be my Guggenheim,” mayor Alain Juppé has said of the city’s sizeable new investment, making reference to Frank Gehry’s swirling titanium museum that rescued the Spanish town of Bilbao’s tourism industry in 1997. Since the mid-1990s, Bordeaux has sought to shed its reputation as France’s “sleeping beauty” with a charm offensive of modernization, starting with the power-washing of industrial soot from its limestone façades, and more recently embarking on the urbanization of the former industrial site where Cité du Vin now sits.

Hip shops and media companies have already started to enliven the area, but Bordeaux’s pursuit of the Bilbao effect sputters with flashy gimmicks, outside and in. On the museum’s interior, tables, architectural details in the ceilings, and painted patterns take on circular shapes reminiscent of bubbles. A roundabout way of moving through the exhibitions mimics the action of swirling wine in a glass—and, perhaps, even encourages the sensation that you’ve had one too many. And the magenta-dominated jewel-tone palette feels like an early-’90s throwback. Despite having just opened, these contrivances aiming for a slick modernity already feel dated.  

The overwrought metaphors determining the design, however, are an easy price to pay for the institution’s substance: it’s filled with the kind of highly entertaining educational immersion that even uninitiated winos (and children) can enjoy. The 32,000-square-foot permanent exhibition, designed by London design firm Casson Mann, rides the technology-driven line between science center and Euro-style Disneyland. During our visit, we wandered through a cavernous, dimly lit exhibition space on the third floor from one high-tech exhibit to another, as a gamut of interactive displays evoked the smells and textures of wine. A deep historical dive into the making of the stuff around the world came with a “compagnon de voyage,” a handheld tablet and headphone set that activates animations and narratives on various wall-mounted screens. But not everything is so heady: Beyond a white fringe curtain waits a room of hidden speakers whispering wine-inspired poetry and a circular red couch—a plush perspective from which to view the projected animations of Venus and Bacchus, Roman God of Wine, flirting on the domed ceiling overhead. Gary Shelley of Casson Mann describes the artwork as “digital baroque ceiling fresco,” or as we saw it, kitsch for the 21st century.

The steady stream of information ends with a glass of wine (choose from a rotating selection of 20 wines, five of which come from Bordeaux) at the top-floor viewing gallery, an apt finale for a tour that succeeds in tantalizing all five senses. Perhaps not surprisingly, the wine bar looks out to the Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas, a 2013 bridge of concrete and steel, instead of the neoclassical city center further to the West. (Try the more panoramic view from Le 7, the restaurant on the floor below.) It’s one last reminder of the city’s attempt to emphasize its modernity, while quite literally losing sight of Bordeaux’s heritage. But if there’s one thing to take away from the exhibit, it’s the not-so-subtle suggestion to go out and explore the real-life vineyards themselves: To pay homage to the terroir and gorgeous, gnarled, deep-rooted vines that will remain the city’s true source of pride.

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Photos: Nick Guttridge