La Cité du Vin, one of Europe’s newest and most iconic attractions, has raised the city of Bordeaux in South West France into the Grands Crus Classés of visitor destinations. An integral and vital ingredient in the swirling richness that goes to make up the ‘city of wine’ is a remarkable collection of books. John Hudson went along to find out more...

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La Cité du Vin, photographed from the river Garonne

A Vintage Library

The Mayor of Bordeaux and former Prime Minister of France, Alain Juppé, described the Cité du Vin project as “my Guggenheim”. It is a small phrase that says a lot. It reveals the penchant for French politicians to leave their mark through grand buildings; it reveals a continuing faith in the principle that investment in cultural initiatives is a path to urban regeneration, a model exemplified by Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, and it reveals huge ambition. But projects of such scale rapidly mature from a dream into a series of challenges.

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The interior of the reading room: "The space is inviting, the beams of the light wooden ceiling echoing the upside-down hull of a ship"

One such challenge, alongside the political, financial and architectural hurdles, was research. There can be no better place in the world for a museum dedicated to wine than Bordeaux. However, La Cité du Vin had a unique remit. Its ten floors set inside a fluid, swirling case of aluminium and glass on the bank of the Garonne river, had to address world wine. This was not a local project but a worldwide account of humanity’s favourite drink.

Fanny Teste (left), “documentaliste” for the collection, alongside Laurence Chesneau-Dupin, Directrice de la Culture de la Cité du VinFanny Teste is “documentaliste” for the collection housed in the Cité’s Salon de Lecture on the second floor of this remarkable building. Alongside Laurence Chesneau-Dupin, Directrice de la Culture de la Cité du Vin, they explain that the books surrounding us started out as a collection aimed at project development research for use by the museum’s curators.

Today there are 1660 books in seventeen different languages, all related to wine through highly diverse connections such as production process, travel, literature, agriculture and pathology, religion and cuisine.

“We realised that we couldn’t keep these books to ourselves,” says Laurence, “that, indeed, they formed a vital link in the visitor experience while exploring the Cité. So, we had this fantastic space created as part of a sequence of rooms dedicated to experiencing wine through workshops, multi-sensory experiences and research.”

The collection not only reflects the content of the whole building, such as special features on the temporary exhibitions of which there are two each year, it also engages with innovative workshops such as “Les Vins des Ecrivains” where readings from wine-loving authors such as Baudelaire or Cervantes are accompanied by the wines the authors would have loved and drank.

“The visitor experience to the Cité du Vin is all about authenticity, about the flavour, aromas and cultural associations that wine offers and so we experience Cervantes and Spanish wine in the Spanish language of the great author. The sound of the language and the smell of the Spanish soil and air in the wine mingle into a kind of revelation,” says Laurence. “Then you can discover more about Cervantes and Spanish wine-making and the geography of Spanish vineyards and their history, here in the reading room.”

But how, I had to ask, was such a collection formed and how is it catalogued?

Fanny, who studied documentation at Bordeaux’s Michel de Montaigne University - Montaigne was another mayor of Bordeaux who left an indelible print on French and world culture – explained how she started to build the collection.

“I started with a few books and turned to the bibliography. I undertook research, largely via the Internet. We consulted experts in the field and once we were open to the public, we received many suggestions. We have a budget to purchase items but we also receive many gifts. Another important contribution is through a partnership with, Féret, publisher since 1868 of the bible of Bordeaux wines, its famous Guide Féret, who send us everything they publish.”

As for cataloguing the collection, Fanny has had to resort to adapting Dewey. Wine, as the subject for the collection, was already a given but Dewey didn’t go quite far enough for the detail she required.

“I have had to create my own sub-classification within Dewey to express the specialist nature of the collection, for example, to create a number to classify the Grands Vins. Such detail is important for collection discovery as we have many visitors who wish to explore very specific aspects of wine and viticulture.”

The salon de lecture is a busy place, serving visitors, students and personnel working at the Cité and developing the cultural program for its ongoing and bustling activities.

“Of course, our universities at Bordeaux have extensive courses in wine and viticulture – some held in English,” explains Laurence. “These institutions have remarkable libraries but there is a strong presence from students at these tables and between these shelves around us. We perform a unique cultural research function integrating written works and experience and we also offer a great ambience dedicated to almost everybody's favourite drink!”

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There's plenty to choose from for both wine and books

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Fanny Teste, the "documentaliste", has adapted Dewey to allow more detailed exploration of the collection

The space is inviting, the beams of the light wooden ceiling echoing the upside-down hull of a ship as well as the sweeping lines of the larger building’s structure. There are no doors, simply space, books and places to read or look out onto the Garonne river and the new Pont Chaban-Delmas, that raises in its entirety to let large ship sail upriver and is named after another notable mayor of the city.

As an example of integrated and visionary thinking, something the French seem so good at, La Cité du Vin with its collections of books residing in its grand curves like a seed in the middle of a grape, is a remarkable example. The building itself is also a seed whose growth is set to regenerate like the ever-renewing vines the space celebrates, the Bacalan sector of Bordeaux.

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Wine tasting in the Belvedere, on the 8th floor, which offers superb views of the city as well as superb wines

It is a vision that made Bordeaux named the best city to visit in Europe in 2015 a city that can be viewed from the Belvedere, the wine-tasting platform on the 8th floor of the Cité. At the heart of Bordeaux’s prosperity is wine, and at the heart of Bordeaux’s success is the knowledge and experience enshrined in the books that fill the shelves of this delightful reading room.

A catalogue of the works available for consultation in the reading room is available online at http://library.laciteduvin.com/fr/accueil. The catalogue will soon be available in English as well as French.

SOME FACTS AND DETAILS

Building designed by Paris-based architects, XTU, to imitate the movement of wine in a glass
Interior displays by London-based, Casson Mann
Project stared 2008, opened 1st June 2016
Mix of public and private funding for construction (19% private – 81% public)
Self-sustaining through revenue from ticket sales and private hire
Building owned by Bordeaux City and run by the Foundation for Wine Culture and Civilisations
Extensive patronage and partnerships to ensure sustainability
Permanent and temporary exhibition spaces
The Thomas Jefferson Theatre which hosts “writers and wine” evenings as well as plays and corporate events
Multiple workshop spaces
Integrated wine tasting and viewing platform at 35 metres
Shops, cafeterias and restaurant
Free to enter (including library) with paid-for exhibitions
First year, c. 425.000 visitors from 150 countries with GB top after France
More information www.laciteduvin.com