Boat rides, peep-shows and (literally) a world of wine at Bordeaux’s newly opened theme park

HK$714 million attraction represents every winemaking country and its restaurant offers 500 wines from 50 countries

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 June, 2016, 10:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 June, 2016, 10:30am

If you are planning a trip to France, take the time to take a boat up to Bordeaux’s new 81 million (HK$714 million) wine attraction.

You get to sail past the sweeping line of 18th century buildings that mark the crescent moon-shaped waterfront before pulling up at a specially-built 90-metre jetty (this cost 400,000 euros to build). Disembark, and you are standing at the base of a vast aluminium- and glass-covered building that is home to the Cité du Vin. The jetty will also be the place to head off on cruises from the Cité du Vin out along the Garonne river to the vineyards of the Médoc, Sauternes and Saint Emilion.

This is Bordeaux as you haven’t seen it before. Those 18th century limestone façades couldn’t be more different from the resolutely modern curves and swirls that make up the 10-storey, 13,350 square metre building designed by Parisian architects XTU. The centrepiece is a 35-metre tower that houses the 7 Restaurant and Belvedere wine bar where you can choose between 500 wines from more than 50 countries while looking out across a panoramic view of the city.

Bordeaux has been at the centre of the wine trade for 1,000 years but has sensibly chosen to make this new “Guggenheim of Wine” a celebration of the drink itself. Every winemaking country is represented in here somewhere, from the big guns of Napa and Burgundy to the seriously under-the-radar producers such as Kazakhstan, South Korea, Wales and Hawaii. And they are not just given a mention, but have been part of the conversation from the beginning, helping to shape the stories.

This is not, of course, totally new territory. There have been plenty of attempts at wine museums before, but most get stuck on dusty farm machinery and interminably dull collections of glasses and decanters. They don’t, at least in my experience, contain a virtual reality boat ride through centuries of wine trading, or an immersive tasting room experience that involves an audio, visual and aromatic assault on the senses, or get their guests to sink into huge red sofas for a “wine and love” section that contains a line-up of peep show-style erotica for over 18s-only.

“The challenge was to get the balance right between information and playfulness,” says Diane Casson, co-owner of the London-based design team Casson Mann that has done such a brilliant job of bringing to life the 20 themed spaces within the permanent exhibition.

“For the wine and love section for example,” her colleague, Gary Shelley, says, “we have gone for something like a cross between a monastery and a sex shop.”

They pause and look at each other before adding, “… in fact that could pretty much sum up the way wine has been perceived since the beginning of time.”

This is why the Cité du Vin works so well. The wine museum-meets-theme park, that has taken five years to complete and opened its doors to the public for the first time on June 1 doesn’t take itself too seriously. You have the geeky sections such as the Table of Terroirs where winemakers describe their land and what it brings to their wines, but that is right slap bang next to a dining table set for a contemporary meal where holograms of France’s greatest chefs talk to you about the importance of food and wine matching. You even get to try your hand at matching yourself – and if you get it wrong, a hologram will smash a glass right in front of you. The whole thing is translated into eight languages, with all guests (French too, as every winemaker speaks his own language) equipped with hi-tech headphones offering simultaneous translation activated by 300 infra-red detectors.

There also seems to be a clear understanding that if this is going to work long-term, it needs to offer a lot more besides a permanent exhibition, and needs to engage the local city. So there is the wine and tapas bar on the ground floor, the panoramic restaurant on the top floor, a large boutique and wine shop, an art gallery that will show plenty of non-wine exhibitions, a free-access reading room, and an auditorium that will host concerts, cinema screenings and other regular events. The tourist office has a branch on the ground floor, and organises trips not just to the Bordeaux vineyards but out across France.

It is this sense of working with the wider world of wine that makes the Cité du Vin so enjoyable, and just might be the key to its success. I first got an idea that this might be true a few months ago, during a wine tasting led by Burgundian winemakers held in Bordeaux in April of this year. Burgundy, as you probably know, isn’t exactly falling over itself to praise its biggest viticultural rival, and yet here were a group of winemakers saying how proud they were of what the Cité du Vin means for France – showcasing the country’s most famous product in an all-inclusive, contemporary and unstuffy manner.

If this place can convince Burgundy that Bordeaux is worth a trip, you can feel pretty confident that you’re going to feel the same way.

A tour costs 20, which includes a 50ml glass of wine with a 360-degree view of Bordeaux