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