It would take a 21st-century team of curators and wine experts for Bordeaux to get its Cité du Vin, a massive complex dedicated to wine history & tasting that’s far too original to simply be called a “museum”.
Opened in June 2016, the Cité is dedicated to exploring “wine cultures and civilizations”, with a strong focus on those of France and the Bordeaux region. It features an enormous, interactive permanent exhibit exploring the history of winemaking and tasting, temporary shows, a rooftop bar where you can taste a variety of interesting wines while looking out through panoramic windows, screening rooms, and workshops dedicated to, you guessed it, the art of wine.
It’s contributed to making Bordeaux– not too long ago considered staid and conservative– a French city that feels forward-thinking, or even hip.
The arresting facade, which evokes a flask or wine glass without exactly mimicking either, gives the Cité a sense of contemporary cred and appeal. Keep reading for my notes on what makes this mega-complex dedicated to all things wine both fascinating and worth visiting.
The Permanent Exhibition: Highlights & How to Visit
Touring the permanent exhibition at the Cité (whether independently or with a guide) is a fascinating, multisensory experience that includes plenty of interaction. Despite thinking I knew a fair amount about wine and its history, I learned a ton (and had fun along the way).
The exhibition, organized into 19 well-differentiated and easy-to-navigate sections, tells the complex history of winemaking and the cultural roles of wine, from Antiquity to the present day.
It brings together static images and texts, videos, mesmerizing 3D and digital dioramas, interactive olfactory stations where you’re invited to use your nose and eyes to learn about wine notes and raw ingredients, and much more. Audioguides are available in several languages (and are recommended). The exhibit is designed to be enjoyed by all ages, and visitors with varying levels of interest/expertise.
The World Wine Tour: This “birds-eye view” of global winemaking offers insight into more than 20 different winemaking regions in 17 countries, taking you on a virtual “helicopter ride” to gain a good overview.
Worlds of Wine: This next section takes you through the history of winemaking through thousands of years of human history, starting in the Caucuses. The story of this history continues later in the exhibit with the Wine Over Water section, which shows how winemaking techniques spread to the Mediterranean before spreading to Western Europe and around the globe.
The Terroir Table: This section guides you through the concept of the terroir, using interactive table panels, image, video and sound to show how specific climatic conditions and events deeply affect the nature and qualities of wines.
In the E-Vine section, learn more about grape varietals and the history of how wild vines have been domesticated and genetically manipulated over the centuries.
“Metamorphoses of Wine” reflects on the supernatural, alchemical powers attributed to winemaking, and delves into the science of how grapes are fermented and vinified to create a product that has (rightly) often been considered magical.
The “Wine Portraits” section will help you navigate and choose wines on your next trip to a cellar or even the supermarket, offering insight into the differences (and production secrets) behind reds, whites, rosés, sparkling wines, and dessert wines.
“All Aboard” offers fascinating insight into the importance of oceanic trade and trade routes in the global expansion of winemaking, especially starting from the colonial period.
In the lushly curated Gallery of Civilizations section, learn about how wine played complex roles in the ancient societies and civilizations of Greece, Rome, and Egypt, from ritual magic to cuisine.
The trend wall shuttled us forward to the 20th century and the history of wine as a modern, sleek, carefully marketed commodity, with displays focused around advertising, labels, marketing, trendy new winery facilities, and the advent of the modern wine bar.
The Buffet of the Five Senses is, hands down, my favorite part of the permanent exhibit. Belljar-like olfactory stations are arranged on both sides of long tables, and you’re invited to use your eyes and nose to guess at the composition of wines and sniff out typical notes, from spices to chocolates to floral notes.
Beautifully curated, inspiring, and accessible to all ages, this is probably the most successful and engaging part of the exhibit.
The banquet of legends section focuses on key figures and legends in wine history, from Colette to Napoleon and Churchill.
Bordeaux: The City and its Wines is a fascinating section that’s essential if you want to learn more about the city’s key role in wine history and production. It offers insight into how the city became an important trading port from the early medieval period onward, and how, with the help of strong demand abroad (especially from the English) it became a world powerhouse in winemaking.
That history is explores further in a second section, The Epic Tale of Bordeaux. I was especially interested to learn how the French winemaking industry, including n Bordeaux, was all but decimated during the 19th century after a blight of phylloxera destroyed thousands of acres of vines. The industry would take decades to recover.
How long does it take to visit the permanent exhibit?
It can take up to two or three hours to fully visit the exhibit, but if you plan in advance you can decide which areas interest you the most and focus your exploration around select sections. Download a map of the permanent exhibition in advance to help plan your visit.
Booking a one-hour guided tour is recommended if you want to see the highlights more quickly and ensure you don’t miss out on the best aspects of the installations.
The Rooftop Tasting Room
After finishing your self-guided or guided tour of the main exhibit at the Cité du Vin, head to the rooftop wine tasting room on the eighth floor for a tasting (included in your ticket) and enjoy panoramic views over the river and city beyond.
Also known as the Belvedere, the bright, contemporary tasting room lets you choose from among 20 bottles from global winemakers, then take your glass and wander around to peer through the panoramic viewing areas. When we were there, we found the staff to be friendly and informative, offering suggestions on which wine to choose based on our personal tastes and mood.
The Wine-Tasting Workshops
If you know some French and feel like stretching your mind and palate a bit, consider trying one of the 1-hour workshops offered by the Cité.
Workshops for beginners and more seasoned tasters, sessions that focus on global wines and Bordeaux sparkling wines, sessions that pair wines with cheeses or chocolates, and even workshops for families all offer interesting (and delicious) ways to learn more about oenology.
Prices are reasonable, currently ranging from between around 15 Euros to 40 Euros (be aware that these may change at any time). Unfortunately, the workshops are not yet offered in languages other than French.
More on the Facade: Design & Architecture
Conceived by architects Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières of Paris-based firm XTU, the facade is as impossible to ignore as it is original. The bold, contemporary design is composed of silk-screen printed glass panels and iridescent, lacquered aluminium panels; the golden hues that result when the sun hits it are meant to be reminiscent of Bordeaux’s traditional, warm stone.
The semi-cylindrical, curved forms are meant to evoke “gnarled vine stock, wine swirling in a glass, eddies on the Garonne”, according to the architects. Their objective? To somehow capture, in a fixed form, liquid, swirling, malleable elements.
But the undulating curves don’t end up frankly suggesting any one form– it depends entirely on the angle from which you view it, and even the way the light hits it at a certain time of day. At times, it catches reflections from the water of the river, offering interesting perspectives no matter when you visit.
See more on the design and its conception here.
Restaurants & Shopping at the Cité du Vin
There’s no lack of choices at the Cité for a snack, sit-down lunch, or glass of wine, and on the weekends you can even stay for a more formal dinner at one of the restaurants.
The Restaurant Le 7 , on the 7th floor, offers more formal dining options as well as panoramic views over the Garonne and the Port de la Lune. Lunch is served on weekdays, with both lunch and dinner services most weekends. The wine list is as long as they come, with some 500 bottles and 32 wines available by the glass. Reservations are recommended.
Latitude 20 Wine Cellar and Bar, meanwhile, is a fascinating space on the ground floor that resembles an enormous “library” of wines, with over 14,000 bottles and 800 wines stacked floor to ceiling on shelves curving around in a semi-circle.
Sommeliers are on hand to make recommendations, and you can have a glass, snack, or full sit-down meal at the adjoining brasserie-bar and snack bar.
The ground-floor boutique, finally, is an ideal port of call for finding wine accessories (decanters, stoppers, wine diaries, glasses, etc) as well as gifts such as wine-scented candles, wine-related games and books, etc.
You can find current opening hours for the restaurants, wine bar and cellars, and shop here.
Cité du Vin: Getting There & Practical Information
The Cité is located along the left bank of the Garonne River, northeast from the city center. It can be easily accessed from the city center by taking Tram Line B to the “Cité du Vin” stop.
- Address: 134 Quai de Bacalan, 33300 Bordeaux, France
- Tel: +33 (0)5 56 16 20 20
- Tickets: Purchase fast-track tickets and audioguide online (via Tiqets) or at the ticket booth when you arrive. Entrance to the Cité is included in the Bordeaux City Pass, which can help you save time and money.
- Accessibility: The Cité du Vin is fully wheelchair-accessible and accessible to visitors with limited mobility, sight or hearing disabilities. See more at this page.
- Visit the official website for more information on hours, current ticket prices, workshop offerings, and more.
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