The Celts settled it and called it Burdigala. Then came Julius Caesar who made it a thriving “emporium” of the Roman Empire and planted the surrounding countryside with vineyards. But it was the English who, a millennium later, got Bordeaux on its way to becoming the wine capital of the world.
The marriage between Bordeaux and England
It all began in 1152 when Eleanor, the heiress to the Duchy of Aquitaine, married the soon to be Henry II, King of England. Thus bringing her Duchy, which included Bordeaux, to the English crown for what was to be a tumultuous three centuries.
Bordeaux wine was served at the royal wedding and soon became the beverage of choice of the royal household. Loyal British wine-lovers followed suite and a lucrative export market was born. By the late 1300’s, Bordeaux had become, after London, the second most populous city under control of the British monarchy. While the region reverted to the crown of France with the conclusion of the hundred years war (which actually lasted 116 years) in 1453, the demand for its fine wines endured. By the 18th century, Bordeaux, the region, was firmly established as the greatest producer of fine wines in the world. And Bordeaux, the port city on the Garonne river, prospered as the center of the wine trade. Yet throughout history, beyond these commercial ties, there was little connection between the city and wine producers that defined the region. Until the recent rise in popularity of wine tourism.
A Playground for Wine Lovers
Now La Cité du Vin (City of Wine) inaugurated in 2016 on the west bank of the Garonne at the edge of Les Chartrons, the historic center of the wine trade, brilliantly bridges the divide between the two Bordeaux. Designed by Paris architects Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazieres, the grand, shiny swirl of a building is a unique cultural center dedicated to the universal heritage of wine, through the ages and around the world.
Step right in. The huge reception area includes a wine boutique, a wine cellar with offerings from around the world, a casual eatery and a wine-tasting bar. And for those who plan to explore the wine region, a booking desk where every kind of tour can be arranged. But resist the urge to sample or shop just yet. Head up the curving staircase where the fun begins. You are in the multi-sensory experience area, where every sense is stimulated through the latest museum technologies, designed by Casson Mann, the London firm who also created the Lascaux IV International Center of Rock Wall Art.
A Virtual World Tour
It begins with a dizzying virtual helicopter tour of the world’s vineyards on three giant screens, from China to Chile to Okanagan to Rangiroa (the latter two in British Columbia and French Polynesia respectively). It’s fascinating to see how vineyards adapted to landscapes and then redefined the land and local life. This experience is the genesis of my recent visit to Lanzarote. The show also reinforces the point that La Cité du Vin it is not museum of Bordeaux wine, but Bordeaux’s museum of world wine.
Drift over to a “terroir table,” where vineyards alter with the seasons, then virtual vintners spring to life, sharing what gives their terroir its identity and makes their wine unique. Browse from Burgundy to the Mosel Valley to Tuscany before reaching the country of Georgia where a monk at the Alaverdi Monastery introduces one of the cradles of wine civilization. Then it’s a stop at the Buffet of the Five Sense, where from citrus, rose petal or chocolate to straw and wood shavings, you can smell the different aromas associated with wine through bell jars and curvy copper trumpets.
Stick your head into a big aluminum bubble to hear and smell the fermentation process, or join a virtual dinner table and eavesdrop on a discussion about wine and food. And in the Bacchus and Venus room, recline on a red velvet couch to watch a ceiling screen that projects the sights and sounds of love and wine – music and poetry, while rose petals seem to drop from the sky. There are 19 modules altogether, each one an interactive slice of wine culture.
Time for Tipple
But virtual travel can be hungry work. On the seventh floor, Le 7 is an elegant restaurant with a panoramic view of the city and the Port of the Moon, the historic shipping port named for its broad moon-shaped curve in estuary of the river. Its refined menu of regional dishes varies with seasons and has already earned it mention in the 2018 Michelin guide “L’Assiette Gourmande.” Its 500-label wine list, with half of the selection from France and the other half from the various wine-producing regions of the world, is no less noteworthy. There is also a choice of 32 wines available by the glass.
Then to cap off the whole experience and even better views, head one more floor up to the Belvedere. This is where all visitors can enjoy a 360-degree panorama of the city, the river and the surrounding countryside while sipping a glass of wine selected from 20 different labels, five Bordeaux and 15 global wines (included in the price of admission). Whether you are a devoted oenophile or a casual wine tourist, this new shrine to wine is sure to peak your interest with its wit, whimsy and style.
Good to Know
- Getting There– Bordeaux is located 600 kilometers (370 miles) southwest of Paris. By plane: Bordeaux-Merignac Airport is 11 kilometers (7 miles) west of the city center. It is a regional airport that serves mostly domestic flights as well as connecting flights from major European hubs. An express bus runs every 30 minutes between the airport, the central train station (Gare Saint Jean) and the city center. By train:There are several daily high-speed train (TGV) connecting Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport and Bordeaux Gare Saint Jean (4 hours), as well as near hourly connections between central Paris (Gare Montparnasse) and Bordeaux (3 hours). There is also a regular train service from most major cities in France and beyond.
- Visiting – La Cité du Vin ,134 Quai du Bacalan, 33300, Bordeaux, France. The exhibits area is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. The restaurants and shops are open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 11:00 pm and Sunday from 10:00 am through 7:00 pm. Contact: tel. +33 55 616 2020, email. contact form.
- UNESCO Listing–The Bordeaux city center was recognized in 2007 on the UNESCO World Heritage List as “an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble” of the 18th century. This remarkably large area encompasses most of the historic city as well as the Port of the Moon and the opposite riverbank.