If there’s one thing that’s synonymous with France, it’s wine.
This spring, an ambitious new installation, Cité du Vin, opened in Bordeaux. Intended to “promote and share the cultural, universal, and living heritage that is wine,” this innovative complex rises like a gleaming metal and glass spaceship from the banks of the Garonne River. It stands 55 metres tall and houses 10 floors devoted to the grape.
As a lover of French wine, I made a recent pilgrimage to visit this new travel destination with a few stops on the Southern Wine Road along the way.
What better way to travel from Paris to the south than on a high-speed Rail Europe TGV train? It was the railroads that first facilitated the movement of wine production from southern France around Europe and helped spread its reputation throughout the world.
Stops Along the Wine Road
One of France’s oldest wine-producing areas is near Montpellier, where I made a stop at Valmagne Abbey. The abbey’s cultural and viticultural roots date back to the Romans.
Elonor d’Allaines, scion of a family that has made wine here for generations, took a group of us on a tour of the 12th-century Cistercian abbey that is the heart of the estate. In the courtyard outside the great church’s mellow stone walls, carp dance in the monks’ ancient fish tank, and inside the deconsecrated church, the bays house huge wooden casks of wine.
A life-sized crucifix hangs nearby with a gnarled grapevine attached, symbolizing both the sacrament and the pragmatism of the grape. A more elegant wine cave could not be imagined.
After a wine-tasting with Elonor, we joined her parents in the abbey’s restaurant for a lunch of locally sourced cheeses, salads, and the beef-and-black-rice particular to the Camargue region. The meal was accompanied by a sample of the star of the abbey’s vineyards, Cuvée Comte de Turenne, a blend of Syrah, Mourverdre, Grenache, and Morrastel grapes.
Only 20 minutes away lies the lagoon of Etang de Thau, one of a network of lagoons that fringe France’s southeast Mediterranean coast. Here, oyster beds crowded the shallow sun-flecked waters and locals dotted a wooden pier, enjoying the fine weather.
At Tarbouriech Oyster Farm we took a brief sail around the wooden grids from which ropes of oysters dangle below the surface. Back on shore, a platter of succulent oysters mounded on a tray of crushed ice, their briny bite tasting of the sea, seemed a great way to set off the local Chardonnay.
Our next stop was the Château de Pennautier and its vineyards. Built in 1620, the estate has been run by the same family for 10 generations. The fairytale town of Carcassonne is only minutes away, and the château offers the same fairytale atmosphere. Ancestral portraits of elegant women hang on the walls of rooms that could easily play host to Louis XIII.
In the tasting rooms created from the château’s ancient stables, the grapes of the terroir produce both red and white varietals that are blended to create the wine’s signature flavours. A sign posted above the stacked cases of bottles laid out the château’s philosophy: “Faced with the useless and absurd, man in his brilliance makes wine, spits out eternities, and laughs at life’s punchlines.”
La Cité du Vin
A three-hour train ride away from Carcassonne lies Bordeaux’s new punchline, the extraordinary Cité du Vin. “Wine is the poetry of the earth,” I had been told at Valmagne Abbey, and La Cité offered a crash course in that poetry.
Providing a completely immersive experience in the history and art of wine and its place in life, religion, and mythology, La Cité explores the metaphoric DNA of the grape and sets out what might be called the genome of viticulture. From the revels of Dionysius to the solemnity of the sacrament to the last quaff of Socrates, Bordeaux’s new must-see installation examines the many rites of passage across the ages and the world marked by the growth and production of the vine.
Twenty themed and interactive spaces explore this historic and complex relationship, including some striking glass exhibition areas designed to imitate wine bubbles. On the ground floor, le cave presents walls of bottles from all over the world for sale, including the most expensive—a €2,600 bottle of Screaming Eagle, an unusual blended red wine from Napa, California.
Display cases shaped like over-sized grapes or towering wine bottles lead floor by floor to the Belvedere and its wine-tasting bar near the top of the complex. A 360-degree, glassed-in terrace with a panoramic view of Bordeaux rings the Belvedere, offering views of a city reinventing itself.
The old wharfs and warehouses have been repurposed as shops, restaurants, and lofts. An old wine warehouse has become the new Museum of Contemporary Art. Connecting it all is the river where, before the railroads, wine barges crowded together.
Bordeaux has made wine its raison d’etre, and through the art of architecture the glittering spaces of La Cité du Vin have created a showcase for the art of the vine.
For more information, visit: www.atout-france.fr, www.laciteduvin.com/en, and www.raileurope.com
Susan James is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has lived in India, the U.K., and Hawaii, and writes about travel, art, and culture.