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Europe: France

Wine Tasting 101: Bordeaux Reinvented

by Deborah Mackie

One of France’s premier wine cities has reinvented itself and the concept of wine education and appreciation. No matter what your level of wine knowledge, there is something to learn and enjoy in Bordeaux.


The smell of fresh basil, ripe tomatoes, citrus fruit, cheeses and warm bread waft around you. You hear a hawker spruiking, a child squeals with delight and a small dog yaps excitedly. The smell of a hot cassoulet is so real you can taste it. The voices of buyers and sellers build to a crescendo as orders are placed, bargains are sealed and purchases are wrapped. You are involuntarily salivating as your mind processes the aromas and sounds and now visions of an outdoor food market flood your mind at exactly the same time as they appear on the curved walls around you. You’re in a French market. Except you’re not. You’re in a sensory wine workshop in Bordeaux.

This ‘visit’ to a French food market is just one of four virtual experiences incorporated into the sensory workshops held at Bordeaux’s new La Cité Du Vin exhibition centre. During the two-hour workshop you will also be transported to markets in Asia, the Middle East and South America with the help of lights, sounds, smells and images created using the latest technology. The experiences are all designed to educate your senses and to help illustrate lessons in wine tasting and food and wine pairing.

Learning these finer points of wine appreciation while sitting in a sealed circular room is a far cry from the traditional winery tour or formal wine tasting class, and it is just one of many ways that Bordeaux has reinvented itself and the concept of wine tasting.

La Cité Du Vin is the centrepiece of Bordeaux’s new role as a leader in wine tourism and education. Opened in 2016, it is a multi-storied facility providing thousands of square metres of spectacular stages, platforms and displays.

The venue’s underpinning philosophy is that everyone should be able to discover wine at their own pace. The exhibition comprises 19 themed spaces which you can explore using a personal digital guide. Available in eight languages, the guide automatically detects your position in the exhibition and allows you to design your own tour itinerary as you go on your voyage of discovery across time, continents and cultures. Many of the interactive exhibits provide multiple levels of information. You can find out just the basics, or you can delve deeper into a subject.

An architectural wonder towering over Bordeaux’s iconic Garrone River, it has already attracted more than one million visitors from all walks of life and representing every part of the spectrum from complete novices to dedicated wine lovers.

Hands-On Modules

More than 100 specialists and experts were interviewed to create the exhibition content. It would take more than ten hours to visit and experience each display, but most people spend an average of about two hours. It all depends on the visitor’s level of wine knowledge and what they are looking to experience.

Some of the must-see modules in the exhibition include the Terroir Table where 50 winemakers from ten regions around the world share their secrets. It is a tactile activity station where landscapes come to life under your fingers to explore and explain the subtle nuances of climate, soil and human intervention.

Stroll along the wooden E-vine where you can use touch screen tablets to harvest information about more than 60 different grape varieties and their place in modern wine making. From the vine move into the forest of giant wooden wine bottles which tells the story of six main wine styles – red, white, rosé, sparkling, sweet and fortified. Watch the wine move in a giant glass as it tells you about itself, its history, characteristics and production.

cite du vin bordeaux travel and talk photograph, cite du vin photo, bordeaux photograph,  terroir table photo, terroir table                                                                                           The Terroir Table

Other displays provide push button access to information on modern day wine trends, wine history, centuries-old myths, wine trivia or just interesting facts and figures.

Wine in Real Life

But La Cité Du Vin is not only about facts and figures. It’s also about enjoying and appreciating wine in a real life context.

You’ve seen the wine connoisseur sniff wine in the glass. Now learn how and why. As you stroll along tables where common and not-so-common wine aromas are depicted under glass cloches, a squeeze of the black rubber ball as you put your face to the upturned funnel allows you to instantly experience the individual aromas. Whether it’s citrus, pepper, cheese or bread; whether it’s old musty books, leather, berries or roses, the sensory table lets you experience and appreciate the importance of aromas in wine. It’s not long before you begin to discern subtle differences, and there’s an interactive exercise where you can test your newly discovered olfactory senses.

But it’s your gustatory senses which come to the fore in the ‘Art of Living’ module where you can dine with gastronomic identities when you seat yourself at one of the three vast dinner tables. The magic of technology creates tables set for family gatherings and gourmet banquets. At each table you’ll be joined by holographically created ‘guests’ – chefs, waiters, sommeliers and wine commentators – who enter into lively discussions about the serving and sharing of wine through the ages. They have opinions on everything from the right shaped glass and the best food for a particular wine to the integral role of wine in gastronomy, exploring the place of wine
in social rites and traditions. It is likely to be the best dinner party conversation you will have for a while.

Sometimes it would be really nice to be able to ask for some expert wine advice. At La Cité du Vin, you can ask everything you’ve ever wanted to know about wine: how to choose it; how to serve it; how to store it; and even that contentious age-old question of what makes a ‘good’ wine. And thanks to technology, you can ask your questions
privately without anyone knowing that you didn’t know the answer in the first place. In the “Ask an Expert” area, the digital magic of holographs again comes to your aid by allowing you to put your questions to a range of experts, from oenologists and sommeliers to chefs, cellar masters and wine tasters. In a relaxed conversational way they deliver answers to a myriad of prepared questions, or you can even ask your own.

Armed with your newly gained knowledge of grape varieties, wine production, wine types, terroirs, and tasting tips you can then venture into the centre’s other attractions. In addition to the daily sensory workshops, there are also discovery workshops, conferences, wine tastings, films, temporary themed exhibitions, a library, a boutique and dining venues.

Your entrance to the permanent exhibition also includes a visit to the eighth floor where, under a chandelier made from more than 2,000 wine bottles, you can enjoy a complimentary glass of wine, and then move to the outside platform with its panoramic view of the river and city below.

Back on the ground floor, it is worth visiting the circular wine cellar with more than 14,000 bottles representing some 800 wines: 200 from France and 600 from 75 other countries, claimed to be the largest collection in the world.

Access to the Best Wines

If you’re looking to taste and experience some of the best wines that Bordeaux has to offer – regardless of their price and where the vineyard is located – your next stop should be the Max Bordeaux Wine Gallery in the city centre. This is another Bordeaux establishment taking a new angle on wine education and appreciation. From La Cité Du Vin, hop on one of Bordeaux’s frequent trams and you will be in the city centre in minutes.

Not so long ago, some of the best Bordeaux wines were available only to those with big budgets and the connections that could get them access to invitation-only estates. Even many wine connoisseurs could only dream about tasting some of the best Bordeaux first growths. At prices often over $AU1,000 per bottle, many prestige wines were out of reach, and, in any case, many are often unavailable for purchase because of their limited supply.

A new concept in wine tasting now puts the best wines within reach of everyone.

Bringing the Wine to the People

The approach at the Max Bordeaux Gallery is to bring the wineries to the people, giving everyone the chance to taste a wide range of wines that were previously out of reach. When you visit the gallery you purchase a tasting card and load it with your nominated credit value.

Tasting stations are positioned around the gallery each representing a different style of wine. A total of more than 40 labels cover the region’s prestige reds as well as the reds specific to Bordeaux’s left or right bank, dry whites, sweet whites and other appellations from nearby regions. By inserting your tasting card and choosing a tasting quantity of either 25, 50 or 75 ml, the enomatic machines will dispense your wine of choice. You can also access detailed tasting notes and information on the relevant chateau using the gallery’s ipads as you move around the stations.

The top labels can have tasting prices of up to €30, but many wine lovers consider it a small price to pay for a taste of wine which – if it was actually available in other countries (and often it is not) – could cost well over twenty or more times that per bottle. But there are also a large number of wines available for tasting for as little as €1 or €2.

A Unique Wine Boutique

Just around the corner from the Max Bordeaux Gallery is another must-visit establishment for wine lovers. L’Intendant wine boutique has become a beacon for wine buyers as well as those just seeking the extraordinary. The wine shop features 15,000 wines artistically displayed around a 15 metre high spiral staircase. Start with the lower cost bottles on the ground level and wind your way up to the most expensive. You will find the staff helpful and well informed.

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The New Bordeaux

Bordeaux, now a UNESCO world heritage site, has long been considered an untouched 18th century gem. A gem it remains, but it is no longer untouched. In recent years the city – France’s second most visited – has undergone a
transformation. The old riverside wharf area has been gentrified and once gloomy building facades throughout the city have been cleaned and polished. While still retaining its history and French charm, Bordeaux is now a vibrant centre where modern buildings meld seamlessly with cathedrals, palaces, bell towers, ornate sculptures, grand hotels and French Revolution landmarks. Many of the city’s landmark buildings, such as the opera house, rival the best in Europe.

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One of the areas where the meeting of old and new is at its most striking is the riverfront where the magnificent 17th century buildings of the Place de la Bourse now face a large modern water mirror. The mirror effect of the two-centimetre deep water and the rhythmic action of spurting of water jets and misting valves have made this a selfie and Instagram icon.

Picturesque parks and kilometres of riverside walks are also a big draw card, and an efficient tram system is being expanded to make the city more accessible. The city centre boasts top name shopping alongside bric-a-brac, antiques and curiosities, all to be found in a cosmopolitan mix of cobbled streets and alleyways and impressive open squares. The reinvented Bordeaux has something for everyone.

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Photos courtesy of La Cité du Vin and L’Intendant


La Cité Du Vin
134-150 Quai de Bacalan
1 Esplanade de Pontac
05 56 16 20 20

Max Bordeaux Gallery
14 Cours de L’Indendance
05 57 29 23 81

2 Allées de Tourny
05 56 48 01 29