June is the right time to be walking the waterfront in Bordeaux, when the sandstone neo-classic buildings glow when hit with summer light. A boulevard curves around the River Garonne, wide enough for easy walking around the port.
Another reason to visit in June is the Bordeaux Fête le Vin, one of Europe’s major wine tourism events. For four days, much of the waterfront transforms into a wine road, offering wines from more than 80 appellations for tasting. A ticket to the the fair is just €21, and it comes with a glass and the right to one tasting at each of twelve booths.
The first day of this year’s fair was hot and people moved lazily, taking their time in choosing wines. From my people-watching vantage point – under an umbrella at one of the 30 food stalls – most people seemed to be choosing white wines or rosés.
The entrance ticket also bought a wine class at the Bordeaux Wine School, where young and enthusiastic staff took people through educational tastings; you could learn about Bordeaux whites or reds, or about specific appellations, while lounging with three or four friends around a mutual table. Spittoons were on every table, but few people used them, preferring to sip away as they watched the presentation. A band struck up in the background, adding to the festive atmosphere.
At the wine tourism booths, people signed up for regional tours, biking tours, tasting tours, blending tours. For people who planned ahead, there were also tasting dinners at chateaux to attend. For a wine lover with limited time, the choice was almost overwhelming.
Bordeaux wasn’t always so welcoming. Less than 20 years ago, the city was worn down, its historic buildings decayed, its waterfront barricaded by warehouses. It was hard to see how this frowsy place could possibly have inspired Baron Haussmann’s remodeling of nineteenth century Paris. The turning point came when Alain Juppé was elected Mayor in 1995. He ordered the sandstone scrubbed, the warehouses dismantled, and a tram system installed, opening up the riverside. Today, Bordeaux is a jewel of a city, named a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2007.
This year, Bordeaux became the final destination of the Tall Ships Regatta, and historic ships lined the harbour – 30 or so traditionally rigged vessels, which had sailed from Liverpool to Dublin to Bordeaux. The ships were open to the public, to the delight of the many kids heading down below.
At the end of the waterfront walkway, after the wine booths gave way to cafes and clothing stores and factory outlets selling porcelain and pottery, the Cité du Vin rises over the Quai de Bacalan like a gleaming silver and gold spaceship. Opened in June 2016, it offers a permanent exhibition about wine.
Wine exhibitions on this scale have had a checkered history. There was the ill-fated Vinopolis in London, offering only static displays that felt very earnest and educational. The surprise wasn’t that it closed down in 2015, it’s that it survived for nearly 16 years. There was Australia’s National Wine Centre, a taxpayer-funded failure that closed several years after opening.
The Cité du Vin, however, has been a stunning success, worth every euro of the €81m it cost to build. In its first year, it attracted more than 450,000 visitors and was named one of the best 11 museums in the world by National Geographic.
Tickets cost €22 and the attendant hands over an audio guide – without it, the exhibitions will make no sense.
The exhibitions is rich in virtual reality and sensory displays. There are tables that have glass domes on them, each dome connected to a copper pipe. Under the dome is something that generates smell – a red leather glove, a mound of coffee – and the visitor squeezes a hand pump while putting a nose to the open end of the pipe. A wine aroma wafts back up. It’s clever and visually appealing, with a steam punk vibe.
There’s a walk through a history of wine, from era to era, beginning with ancient times. On the wall of each era is a box containing a diorama – as soon as you turn your attention to it, holographic figures spring to life, moving around their enclosed world. But as only one person at a time can look, it feels like an intimate view into the past. There are dining tables that re-set themselves with digital food; historic holographs who argue with one another; and virtual reality displays of winemaking. It’s witty and fun. For professionals, there is also a well-stocked library, and rooms for wine tastings and functions. The only feature missing is better signposting – it’s hard to find where they serve the glass of wine that comes with the ticket.
Outside, it’s a choice of heading back to the waterfront – where the evening events and fireworks are beginning at the Bordeaux Fête le Vin – or catching the tram into the city, to one of the many wine bars or eateries.
Alain Juppé may be remembered for the physical transformation he brought to the city of Bordeaux, but his contribution to removing the stuffy image of Bordeaux’s wine may be an even greater achievement. Thanks to initiatives like the Bordeaux Fête le Vin and the Cité du Vin, everyone can find a way into the wines of the famed region.