Museum pieces

  • Monday 1 July 2002

Bordeaux' wine museums are sometimes arcane but almost always absorbing. ANthony Peregrine visits the best.

The Bordelais have a good story and they want to tell it, so in recent years museums that do just that have sprung up across the region. These offer more opportunities to study old secateurs and hoes, Heath Robinson-style spraying equipment and the complexities of coopering than all but the most determined visitor can possibly take in. The range, naturally, is wide. You may run into family histories and contemporary art, talking wine vats and mentions of Ausone, Pasteur and raw sardines. What you don't find is much in the way of an overview. Technicalities and their history are generally well-handled, but there's a gap where socio-cultural aspects should be. Patterns of ownership and working life, the impact of wine wealth on the structure of Bordelais society – information and commentary on these topics are rare. The wine section in Bordeaux's Musée d'Aquitaine – presently being re-designed – should rectify the omission, but as it's not due to re-open until early summer, it's difficult to say how, or how well. However, there's still plenty to keep the inquisitive going and below are details of the museums which are worth a detour to visit. chateau branda, cadillen-en-fronsadais I can barely tell a dahlia from a tulip, but I could have spent a day in Branda's medieval Garden of Delights. It colonises the courtyard of this restored 14th century stronghold and is a tranquil wonderworld of geometric shapes, vegetation and the symbolism that monks once favoured (fennel for strength, white roses for the Virgin, and then some).

Owner Jean-Jacques Lesgourgues' great trick, though, has been to slot modern art into this glorious setting. I know it sounds suspicious but it works. There's a sculptured tribute to Pasteur, a rickety wind structure and, in the towers, conceptual, wine-inspired items that are both fascinating and accessible even to philistines. I'm still slightly haunted by the eternally unravelling barrel. And then there's the Spirit of Wine exhibition, a theatrical approach to viticulture and associated matters. Its literary allusions may be over the top, but it's utterly engrossing in a sound-and-vision, hands-on sort of way.

Entry: £3.40 (under 16s free); open every day, Easter–1 Nov, weekends and bank holidays during the rest of year; Tel: +33 5 57 94 09 37.

Chateau Lagueloup & Mongenan, Portets

Here we have the stories of two great Graves families. First, Château Lagueloup where, by the mid-19th century, one Jean Descacq was 60 years ahead of his time in terms of industrialising wine production. His chai had a little internal railroad, glazed concrete tanks, mechanical pumping-over, a steam press and much more, which is all on display here, together with a vast amount of other equipment. This is the best such show in the region – but that's not all. Last year, Lagueloup was bought by Florence Mothe of nearby Mongenan and she has included her family memorabilia in the exhibition – the archives from the Eschenauer négociant firm, letters, photos, notes and even prayers. It's gripping stuff, and then I insist you drive to Mongenan itself to learn of Madame Mothe's 18th century ancestors. This separate museum covers the revolution, freemasonry, costumes and domestic details. They had to throw me out at lunchtime.

Lagueloup: entry free; open every day; Tel: +33 5 56 67 13 90.
Mongenan: entry £3.80 (under 12s free); open every day in summer; Tel: +33 5 56 67 18 11.

musee des chartrons, 41 rue borie, bordeaux This is a hymn to the old-style négociants-éleveurs, who were the backbone of the Bordeaux wine trade for 300 years, until 1950. Created in the premises of one of their number, Irishman Francis Burke, this museum evokes a cottage industry with world-wide connections. Downstairs, the cellars have been preserved to house the region's clearest introduction to the barrel business. (If you're unsure what a velte or a case hogshead is, hurry thither.) Upstairs, the former labelling and despatch department (le plancher) is alive with equipment, labels, notices and fine old bottles, including some marked 'Retour des Indes' (the wine had been sent to India and back by sea for faster ageing).

Entry £2; open Monday–Friday, 2–6pm. Tel: +33 5 57 87 50 60.

Chateau Verdus, St Seurin-de-cadourne

This place is certainly worth a detour if you can be sure that owner Alain Dailledouze or his mother, 81-year-old Madame Marianne Dailledouze, are on hand. The little museum felicitously mixes the history of the Médoc with that of the family and really comes alive if there's a Dailledouze about. They have been winemaking notables here, in this last outpost of the Haut Médoc, for 500 years and so know a thing or two. They've also conserved a thing or two.

Entry £2 (under 15s free); open Monday–Saturday and Sunday afternoon; Tel: +33 5 56 73 17 31.

Eco-musee du Libournais, Montagne

Until recently, a new Libournais mother would wear a roof-tile on her head to ensure her baby would never want for shelter. Now that's what I call information, and this museum, the most complete in the region, is full of it. It's the only one that attempts to put wine in a wider social and working context and demands you make the 4km drive from Saint-Emilion. Here you'll find details of stone-quarrying, hemp-spinning and river trades, of wine's working hierarchy and, of course, wine production itself – all excellently displayed. Across the courtyard are botanical gardens, plus reconstructions of workshops and a vigneron's home. The feeling is of people trying to tell us about themselves, not just their wine, and it works.

Basic entry £3; open every day in summer, weekends rest of year (closed 20 December–1 March). Tel: +33 5 57 74 56 89.

Planete Bordeaux, Beychac-et-caillau

The star of the show here is undoubtedly the talking wine vat, from within which the yeast addresses the grape juice. Both have female voices. 'It's so hot in here. What's happening to me?' cries the juice. 'Fermentation, my friend, fermentation,' replies the wise old yeast. Irresistible. This ends a series of rooms covering wine production. It's sometimes ponderous, but mainly fun, and there's also a good, modern section dedicated to barrels, bottles and aromas.

Entry £3.20 (under 16s free); open Monday–Friday all year. Tel: +33 5 57 97 19 20.

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