France's premier wine-making region produces some of the greatest vintages of all time, but it has historically not taken kindly to visitors—until now. From the city to the grand old châteaux beyond, Bordeaux is showing a fresh face to the world.
I confess I came late to Bordeaux. My experience with wine began as a kid growing up in Buffalo in the 1950s. My paternal grandfather, Gaetano, who emigrated from Sicily, concocted a rough-edged wine in the backyard every fall. One year red; one year white. He “aged” it for a few months in old whiskey barrels to give it a bigger bite and watered it down for me and my siblings to sample.
During my first decade living in France, I mostly avoided visiting the Bordeaux wine region. To many, the very name means old-fashioned, snobbish, and unaffordable. For centuries, its winemakers have created some of the world’s most prized and expensive wines—Thomas Jefferson was famously devoted—and they devised a system of classifying them that hasn’t changed since the days of Emperor Napoleon III.
I realized that I could spend my whole life sampling Bordeaux wines and never master the vast universe of their history and traditions. I have French friends who so revere them that they can rattle off vintages the way American baseball fans know who scored how many home runs in which World Series. Fantasizing about Bordeaux wines helped journalist Jean-Paul Kauffmann endure his ordeal as a hostage in Lebanon in the 1980s. He kept his memory in shape by reciting daily the famous 1855 classification system. He imagined the aromas and tastes of the wines from the dark and cramped dungeon where he was held chained and sometimes blindfolded. “Sometimes in the deep dark well of reality, a miracle happened,” he wrote after the ordeal was over. “The taste of cedar and black currant from the Cabernet Sauvignon, the plummy aroma of the Merlot, returned to me.”
It was with the Bordeaux mystique in mind that early one morning, under clouds pregnant with rain, I boarded a riverboat to take me up the Garonne into the city of Bordeaux. As I made my way through the slow-moving waters, it was as if I were being ferried from the 18th century into the future: I passed rows of low, elegant limestone buildings that, in prerevolutionary times, had defined the city as a center of wealth and the most important port in France.
Then suddenly, as if the wine god Dionysus had willed it with his staff, the sun broke through. As we looped around the bend in the river, a modern structure caught the light and shone in glorious gold and silver. This was the Cité du Vin, the $85 million architectural flight of fancy that opened last June. Part museum, part visitors’ center, part mini theme park, it was born of a collaboration among a number of players, including the city of Bordeaux, the Bordeaux Wine Council, and Crédit Agricole Aquitaine bank. Its stated mission is to promote “the cultural, universal, and living heritage that is wine” to visitors from around the world.
Some say the structure is poetry in motion: a thick, curved appendage representing wine swirling in a glass atop a vast round vase. Others call it a metallic whale with a funny-looking tail. Its two French architects describe it as “an evocation.” No matter. For the residents and vintners of the region, it is the symbol of Bordeaux’s quest to both revive its principal city and to shake off centuries of insularity and moribund tradition. As I traveled around the city and into the vineyards beyond, I could see efforts everywhere to turn the epicenter of old-world wine making into a more modern, global capital of wine.
There was a time when the city of Bordeaux, much like the surrounding wine country, was an unwelcoming destination—the kind of place you got in and out of quickly. The first time I visited, years ago, I found a city of darkness with its back to the river and buildings veiled in 100 years of soot.
That was before Alain Juppé, the former prime minister and presidential hopeful now in his fourth term as mayor of Bordeaux, launched a bold urban-renewal project. The city razed the abandoned warehouses along the waterfront to create a pedestrian walkway and bike path. It cleaned the soot from the limestone façades of the Bourse, the Grand Théâtre, and the main cathedral, then insisted other property owners do the same. It installed a 41-mile tram system and banned cars from much of the city center. In 2017, a major renovation of the central railroad station will be complete, and a new high-speed train line will cut the travel time from Paris by more than a third—to a mere two hours.
Rather than use the city as a transit point for vineyard-hopping, visitors are now being encouraged to stay a day or two, as I did. Le Boutique Hotel—a wonderful 18th-century town house with UNESCO status as an architectural treasure—was my first choice. Bordeaux has traditionally suffered from a lack of good hotels beyond the Grand Hôtel, which I found bland. But lately, smaller properties with more character have opened. Le Boutique has a cozy wine bar with an excellent selection, along with eclectic rooms and suites that conjure the wealth and sumptuousness of this historically rich city.
Another reason to stick around Bordeaux now is a wave of neo-bistros led by young chefs—one of the most gifted of whom is Victor Ostronzec of Soléna, a small, stark place on Rue Chauffour that he took over last year. Ostronzec insisted I try nearly everything on the menu, including gambas with pea purée and roasted lemon, mixed raw and cooked green and white asparagus with a pistachio vinaigrette, sea bass with a cauliflower emulsion, and ris de veau with caramelized onions. I was too full for dessert.
No way, he said, serving me his specialty: a version of baba au rhum wrapped in whipped cream, with fresh strawberries and a quenelle of olive-oil sorbet on the side. I never order baba au rhum—it reminds me of the syrupy-sweet versions I had as a kid. But this baba was in another league—a gastronomic souvenir I will cherish (and order again).
My friend Jean-Claude Ribaut, a Parisian food critic, was also in town and stressed the need to balance the nouveau dining experience with classic Bordeaux cuisine at Brasserie Bordelaise, in the old city center. It is always packed with locals who come for the excellent foie gras, oysters, and local sausage. In season, the must-have dish is lamprey prepared by boiling its blood down into a thick sauce with red wine, onions, leeks, cloves, and lardons. I found it heavenly.
We hopped the tram for the short trip to the Chartrons quarter, where British, Flemish, and Irish wine merchants once lived and traded. Lately, it has morphed into a cool, gentrified neighborhood of residential lofts, art galleries, restaurants, and boutiques. Part of its charm is that it is still in the stages of becoming: some abandoned buildings stand out in their sooty blackness, while others have been scrubbed to a creamy beige.
It’s against this backdrop that the Cité du Vin makes a Guggenheim Bilbao–esque impression. Inside, what’s most striking is how much it breaks from the usual Bordeaux chauvinism by focusing on the global impact of wine in history. The ground-floor Latitude20 wine bar stocks 800 wines from more than 70 countries, while on the ninth floor, the Belvédère is the place to go for a glass of non-Bordeaux. There are two restaurants: a snack bar and a more upscale place on the eighth floor with panoramic views and a modern French menu that rotates with the seasons.
At the Cité’s core is an exhibition space created by the London-based museum-design firm Casson Mann. Its entrance will dazzle even the most cosmopolitan wine buffs: there, three enormous screens show helicopter footage of wine terrains from around the globe; the films flow over you as you sit and watch. My favorite space was the slightly risqué, 18-and-over Bacchus & Vénus room, where I reclined on a red sofa, gazed up at ceiling projections of paintings lush with the sensuality of wine, and listened to wine-inspired poetry. Ringing the room are peep shows, including one containing an elaborate handblown wineglass in the shape of a penis. For French officialdom, the museum is a celebration of the greatness of Bordeaux. President François Hollande called it “a success for France,” and Mayor Juppé praised it as “a beacon for Bordeaux.”
For the people and the winemakers of Bordeaux, the museum—with its fluid and daring design, its shiny façade that changes color with the time of day—represents even more: a feeling of optimism about the future that’s often lacking in France these days.