Bordeaux easily could have opted for a vanity project in creating its latest attraction -- La Cité du Vin, a wine museum that debuted in June.
After all, when many hear the word "Bordeaux," they think about the wine itself rather the lush acreage and chateaux where it's produced or the vibrant, modernized 18th-century town in southwestern France. And why not? Some 22 bottles of Bordeaux are sold every second throughout the world, according to the Bordeaux Wine Council.
But Bordeaux, the city of nearly a quarter of a million (where many adults work in the wine industry), has taken the long view. The museum celebrates all wine, its captivating and often-raucous history and its arresting (or sometimes arrestable) producers and drinkers. The museum's tagline, "a world of cultures," rings true.
From the outside, La Cité looks like a golden and silver wine decanter rising ten floors from the Garonne River. The building's rotund, swooping bottom evolves into a chunky swirling tower whose exterior reflects the hubbub of river and street life below. Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazieres, from the Parisian firm XTU Architects, were aiming, naturally, for a building that made a statement and one that advanced the concept of liquidity. They succeeded splendidly.
Inside, the pattern of the circular lobby compels you to make stops at the cellar store with wine from everywhere stacked several stories high; the gift shop selling corkscrews, linens and books; the snack bar with a terrace; the tastings room; separate desks to buy tickets to the museum and to nearby vineyard tours; and the 250-seat Thomas Jefferson Auditorium, a nod to the third U.S. president and an ambassador to France who was known for his love of wine.
The key to this floor and throughout the museum is fluidity, as each sight and experience nudges you around, akin to the swirl of wine in a glass.
If you're inclined to favor wines from tried-and-true places, get ready to be dazzled by the varieties showcased on the Permanent Tour, art-directed by London design firm Casson Mann. There, you can pick up an audio guide (available in eight languages) and take in 20 winemaking regions in 17 countries in "flyover," travelogue style on gigantic high-definition screens. So enticing is this display, you may wish for a globetrotting wine tour in your future. The heavy-hitters -- France, Italy, Spain, Germany -- are all there along with New World and lesser-known regions.
Equipped with your electronic guide, a GPS picks up your location to explain what's in front of you. That's especially helpful when you walk through The Worlds of Wine, which lays out the history of wine, from its beginnings around 6,000 B.C. in the Caucasus, today's Eurasian country of Georgia, to the present.
The tour also spells out how wine is made and other practicalities. But the most engaging feature are the small built-in "stages" in alcoves, which project tiny digital images of performers in period dress acting out such concepts as a Roman food and wine orgy (Romans were the first to formally combine wine with food and, voilà, they invented pairings), how religions advanced winemaking and the frauds committed against the public when wine was scarce during the 19th-century phylloxera blight.
Not all is watching and learning at La Cité du Vin. Really, what would the point of a wine museum be without a goût or two? One offering is drinking and virtual eating, another is drinking and a third is drinking and eating, just like the Romans. Then there's napping, but more on that later.
During the workshop A Glass of Wine in Markets of the World, you spend an hour and a half in a circular room sampling four different wines, while an expert explains each and encourages discussion. Projected onto a 360-degree screen are scenes relevant to the wine you're sipping, which show locales and their food markets. One recent tasting included an Italian prosecco, French rosé, Argentine malbec and South African Stellenbosch.
This encounter may, of course, make you even more thirsty. Pas de problème. At the Belvedere, the museum's top floor, even the fussiest of oenophiles may be satiated. While imbibing, look up to see a chandelier made of thousands of wine bottles and look all around for a panoramic view of Bordeaux. One floor down is Le 7 restaurant, which seats 70 at tables inside and outdoors and showcases designs that cleverly mimic aspects of winemaking. The menu includes seasonal fare under the direction of the Nicolas Lascombes group (Brasserie Bordelaise in Bordeaux and Hôtel de la Plage in Cap-Ferret) and wine from 50 countries.
Le fin? Pas de tout. During the summer months and on holidays, La Cité, for 4 euros, provides a spot to steal a brief snooze. So appropriate really. And perhaps an amenity that other museums might well consider ....