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Anson on Thursday: Bordeaux Cité du Vin – a sneak preview

Jane Anson gets a sneak preview tour of Bordeaux's €80m euro wine cultural centre, set to open to the public in June with the promise of tastings and a host of features, including a historical boat tour and a wine and erotica section...

If you’ve walked through the trenches at the Imperial War Museum’s First World War Galleries in London, with shells exploding overhead and soldiers’ voices around you in the darkness, you might just believe me when I say you should get excited about the opening of Cité du Vin in Bordeaux, which is now less than one month away.

I mean it. Suspend your cynicism. While we’ve all been busy pointing to the failures of Vinopolis in London and Copia in Napa, and the general impossibility of creating a wine museum that can sustain visitor numbers over the long term, the Cité du Vin has been quietly getting ready to prove us all wrong. And it is in no small part down to two London scenographers Dinah Casson and Roger Mann, whose design agency has worked on a roll call of the world’s greatest exhibition spaces and installations, and just last year was awarded Best Permanent Exhibition gong at the Museums + Heritage awards for their trenches recreation. They are working on two projects in France right now – the new Lascaux IV visitor centre in the Dordogne, due to open December 2016, and this cultural space that hopes to become the Guggenheim of wine.

The team at Casson Mann has spent the past three years interpreting the vision of hundreds of geographers, oenologists, scientists, writers and historians, turning their knowledge into a museum with enough scale and ambition to connect with visitors in a notoriously tricky subject.

‘At the heart of it all,’ chief designer Gary Shelley puts it bluntly, ‘we had to work out a way to take the geeky aspects of wine and make them entertaining’.

Here he is confronting the central problem. It’s the same one that television and film producers have grappled with for decades (here’s to SOMM and Sideways for proving that it’s possible); how to make wine interesting to the wider public. And for an €81 million project largely backed by public funds, this is no small question. How do you make a wine museum engaging not only for tourists but to the local population so that they keep coming back and give it the vital spending power of the city itself?

One way, director Philippe Massol suggests, would be to avoid the term museum altogether.

‘It has associations with something static,’ he tells me as we meet up in his temporary office space just over the road from the Cité du Vin, ‘and that is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve here’.

An hour or so later, as I get a first-hand preview of what they have achieved, Roger Mann adds that there are other, rather more challenging, differences between the Cité du Vin and a traditional museum.

‘In most museums, we are working with real objects, relics of historical events that we can draw stories around. This is the biggest project that we have worked on where essentially there is a huge space and lots of data, processes and ideas to convey but very few actual physical objects. The challenge has been to make each themed section a distinctive experience using a variety of techniques involving classic storytelling and immersive digital technologies’.

We are standing in the centerpiece of the new building; a 3,000m² permanent exhibition that brings together 19 differently themed spaces to recount the history of wine from 6,000BC to the present day. We start off before a trio of five-metre high screens showing sweeping scenes of vineyards in a section entitled ‘World Tour’.

I don’t want to give too much away, because part of my pleasure was in the sheer surprise of what they have put together, but they’ve definitely come up with a few answers to the question of giving wine wide appeal.

For a start, there is a sense of fun and of playing with expectations at every point. You get a true sense of movement from large-scale immersive sections such as a 50-seater boat that takes you through the maritime history of wine from the Greeks and Romans to Dutch traders arriving in 17th century Japan to smaller, intimate areas such as one dedicated to wine and love, where you sink into huge red velvet sofas and look upwards to projections of artworks illustrating the theme of Bacchus and Venus.

Real winemakers are brought in throughout, always speaking their own languages (even French visitors will need to use the specially-designed headsets for simultaneous translation and there are nearly 300 infra-red detectors providing interactivity to a fleet of a thousand hand-held guides that each visitor will be issued with), and there are various spots at which you can get face to face not only with winemakers, chefs and sommeliers but with historical figures from Winston Churchill to Colette.

There is also a small section planned around the subject of wine and erotica; well, you’ll just have to see it for yourself. This area was still being designed when I visited.

But the biggest surprise is that in the whole exhibition there is only one module on Bordeaux (and even that comes care of an art director from Assassin’s Creed). Veronique Lemoine, scientific advisor, worked with over 100 advisors from over 40 countries and explains why the focus was never going to be solely on home turf.

‘From the very beginning we wanted this to be collaborative in a true sense,’ Lemoine says. ‘We have drawn on the expertise and generosity of wine regions around the world; this is a truly global museum. For the opening World Tour exhibit, for example, the army in Georgia lent us their helicopters to help take aerial shots of the vineyards. At first other regions were cynical that they would be presented as ‘good but not as good as Bordeaux’ but they quickly could see that this is not a centre about Bordeaux wine. It is a world wine centre based out of Bordeaux’.

And the team also seems to be aware that, for this to really succeed, it has to be more than just wine. ‘We learnt a lot from the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin,’ says Lemoine, ‘where they get one million visitors per year but a quarter come for the view from the Gravity Bar’. This gave the idea of the Belvedere wine bar on the top floor of the Cité du Vin, with a panoramic view of Bordeaux and its river. Then there is a reading room, the all-important shop, a restaurant, a tapas bar and wine store that will stock bottles from ‘between 70 and 80 countries at launch’, and a 250-seater auditorium that will show theatrical and musical events – and will kick off by screening football matches during Euro 2016, accompanied by wine tastings of the player countries.

‘If this was just about Bordeaux, it would be in competition with the chateaux here,’ says Massol. ‘We have always wanted to create something entirely different’.

There’s a quiet confidence about the team as they count down to opening – and I can see why. In three weeks time, on opening night, I would like to bet that there are going to be more than a few former cynics converted to the cause.

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