Twenty years ago, a singular museum transformed the fortunes of Spain's Bilbao, about 300 kilometres from Bordeaux in south-western France. Bordeaux's Mayor, Alain Juppe, has never hidden his ambition to create a similar drawcard for his city. "La Cite du Vin will be my Guggenheim," he declared of the curvaceous wine museum that opened last June on the banks of the Garonne that curves through Bordeaux. The museum's lines echo the swirl of wine in a glass and the knot of a grapevine as well as the movements of the Garonne but, every time I look at it (which is often, if you're river cruising here), it reminds me of a big shiny boot.
I allow two hours to visit the boot, thinking it won't transfix for longer. This is a mistake. It's alluring from the get-go, starting with the technology. The audio guide's space-age headset makes me feel like I've just joined the Jetsons. The guide can intuit (thanks to nearly 300 infra-red sensors) when I'm near any of the permanent exhibition's 19 themed areas such as the Terroir Table showcasing 10 global wine regions. Touchscreens activate interviews with 50 winemakers, including Australia's Stephen Henschke and David Lehmann. So far so normal.
Things turn a little more theme park when I step into a theatrette to watch animated journeys through Bordeaux's history of wine-trading (the tossing of the cargo ship upon the high seas makes me feel seasick but the multisensory experience includes a reviving whiff of salt water). The Buffet of the Five Senses, which sets out the aromas of everything from leather gloves and aged books to butter and strawberries, is fun for all ages.
The Art of Living, a multimedia installation where a historian, a journalist and a chef appear to be seated around a formal dining table, waiting for you to eavesdrop on their conversation, feels like high art. Another nook explores drinking's dark side but the biggest surprise is the chill-out zone.
At Bacchus and Venus, which the designers describe as a cross between a monastery and a sex shop, visitors recline on a scarlet sofa to admire the ceiling art while listening to excerpts from wine-themed works: James Shelton's 1950 tune Lilac Wine, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood's Summer Wine and Boris Vian and Alain Goraguer's Je Bois (I drink). The words that leave the biggest impression come from Jacques Prevert, a national treasure whose poems have inspired everyone from Serge Gainsbourg to Iggy Pop. To hear his Fiesta is something else.
Nearby peepshow-style viewfinders (positioned so kids can't reach them) reveal erotic art works and eye-popping celluloid snippets (think Susan Sarandon in The Hunger, Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies, Andy MacDowell in Sex, Lies and Videotape) that explore the connection between wine and wantonness.
Not everything works well, though. I can't, for instance, activate all the bits and pieces on the interactive touchscreens that dive into Bordeaux's history. All is forgiven when I reach the eighth-floor Belvedere, with its striking wine-bottle ceiling and panoramic views over the Garonne's crescent-shaped curve that inspired the city's nickname: Port of the Moon. Here, I choose a glass of wine that is part of the entry fee: the day's selections range from a Brazilian sparkling to an Austrian gruner veltliner, a Mexican barbera-merlot and an Algerian rosé, along with a strong showing from Bordeaux.
The same global approach is taken in the ground-floor wine cellar that stocks everything from China's Chateau Nine Peaks to South Australia's Two Hands. I'm after two Bordeaux drops to take home. The bottle shop guy is admirably decisive, asking my budget then handing me a Clos Floridene – a sauvignon-semillon from the late Denis Dubourdieu, a winemaker so revered he was known as the "pope of white wine" – and a red from Chateau la Bridane.
The white, I can report, has already gone down a treat. My neighbour works in the wine biz – taking a bottle to his place usually fills me with angst. This time, however, I brandish my Clos Floridene with confidence. He swirls, sniffs and sips – lantana, mown grass, tinned pineapple, he murmurs. Another neighbour asks him if he could please import it. Merci beaucoup, La Cite du Vin. Love your work.
Bordeaux's La Cite du Vin is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am-6pm. The €20 entry fee includes a glass of wine in the Belvedere wine bar. The museum is within walking distance of cruise-ship docks and a few tram stops from Bordeaux's city centre. Allow up to three hours to visit. The museum also houses a bottle shop and a reservations counter that arranges visits to the region's wine chateaux.
Katrina Lobley was a guest of La Cite du Vin and Scenic