The City of Vines and Wine reveals many secrets

by Tom Fiorina on May 8, 2010

Located in the heart of the Languedoc vineyards, the
Cité de la Vigne et du Vin
offers a unique look at viticultural and oenology research being done by France’s INRA agronomical research institute.

The magic “Four Seasons Symphony” greenhouse (above and right) allows visitors to discover the various vegetative cycle stages of grapevines.

For almost a year now, I’ve been trying to arrange a meeting with a winemaker from southwestern France who does consulting work at vineyards around the globe. But each time I call him, he’s in Argentina or Chile, or South Africa or Australia, and most recently he’s even been in Russia and Bulgaria. Traveling the hemispheres means that he does at least two harvests each year. You think—“Boy, this is one busy winemaker.”

However, this past week, I met a man who certainly must qualify—although in a very limited way, as France’s busiest winemaker. His name is Alban Marjotte, and he’s a Scientifique animator at La Cité de la Vigne et du Vin in Gruissan, a small village located on the Mediterranean coast just south of Narbonne. The Cité de la Vigne et du Vin is part of the INRA (French Agronomical Research Institute) Domaine de Pech Rouge research facilities. Marjotte’s title makes more sense when you understand that La Cité is a unique window into some of the most advanced research being done today on viticulture (vineyard management) and on oenology (the science of winemaking). His job is to explain to the 20,000 visitors who visit the center each year how this research is impacting vineyards in France and the wine that is produced in them.

But, and here’s where the animator part enters into the picture, this is not simply a pedagogical center; there’s a large element of entertainment involved. The Cité de la Vigne et du Vin, he explained to me, evolved from a vine and wine exhibit that INRA prepared in 2002 for the Parc de la Villette, the site of Paris’s Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, an ultramodern complex that includes a cultural center, interactive exhibitions, a concert hall and a museum. If you’ve never visited the Parc de la Villette, I recommend it as a great place for kids and adults to explore.

The same can be said for La Cité de la Vigne et du Vin. I understood immediately when Marjotte told me that it was a great hit in Paris and in the two other locations where it was presented. A permanent home was needed to house it, he told me, and the Languedoc-Roussillon region, along with the Département de l’Aude, the French department where Gruissan is located, came up with the funding to create La Cité within the INRA research center.

The INRA researchers developed the text and broad themes, while exhibit experts prepared the interactive exhibits that allow visitors to learn about viticulture and wine through sight, smell, taste and experimentation. There are three main visitor groups, he told me: tourists on vacation in the Narbonne area, children on school trips, and professionals (research scientists or people involved in the wine industry). For the most part, the tours are self-guided, with panels (alas, the majority are only in French) explaining the different exhibits. Guided tours are given to groups of school children and group tours are also given in French, English, German and Dutch.

The Four Seasons Symphony
The tour begins with a fascinating depiction, using stop-action photography of one year of the life cycle of a vine. From budding through the grape harvest takes just three minutes (one image was taken every three hours). The vegetative cycle of the vine is further explored in a greenhouse containing dormant vines, vines with their first leaves and buds, vines with ripening grapes, and, finally, vines with grapes ready to be harvested. Marjotte told me that it was his job to remove the vines, periodically, from cold-frame storage, and set them up for display in this time-distorting greenhouse. Every two weeks, he harvests a crop of grapes (which is why I crowned him France’s business winemaker) and advances the other vines forward an additional step in the vegetative cycle. It’s slightly disorienting, yet fascinating, to have a dozen or so vines in all stages of development in front of you at one time. I can understand why this wowed the Parisians at La Villette.

Scientifique animator and "World's busiest winemaker" Alban Marjotte.

An equally extraordinary 4,000-squre-meter garden contains an incredible range of traditional and modern grape varieties. The rows of vines illustrate the rich diversity of grape varieties. Marjotte told me that there are more than 8,000 varieties of grapes around the world, but that the majority of wine is made from only 50 main varieties.

Descriptive panels explain the characteristics of each variety, the development of clones (the INRA researchers are working on disease-resistant clones, as well as clones that produce low-alcohol grapes), the various ways of pruning the vines, and different methods of working the soil to control weed growth. I was slightly taken aback by the soil treatment display that showed grassy, plowed and chemically-treated alleys between rows of vines. One would think, in this environmentally-conscious era, that there might be some mention of the positive benefits, over herbicides, of leaving grass in-between vine rows, or of simply cultivating the soil to uproot weeds. Having read Bertrand Celce’s excellent post in his equally excellent wine blog about how close the wine industry in France is to the chemical industry, I think that I shouldn’t have been surprised.

The next stop on La Cité tour is an operational wine cellar that demonstrates and explains the process of vinification, extraction, fermentation and even the aging of wine in oak casks. The different stages of transforming the grapes into red, white and rosé wine are clearly shown, and you can even blend your own wine Marjotte told me about the wine-press-of-tomorrow that the INRA researchers are helping to develop. Unlike the best presses of today, which use a bladder to press the grapes, this new press will rapidly increase and lower the temperature, by a few degrees, of grapes held in a vacuum chamber. The temperature fluctuations crack the grape skins, allowing the gentle freeing of the juice from the grape without releasing undesirable tannins into the grape from crushed seeds, stems or other parts of the grapes.

Grapes as art: The characteristics of grape skins, flesh and seeds, their multitude of tastes, aromas and colors, and their influence on making every wine unique and original, is revealed at La Cité de la vigne et du Vin.

An entire section is devoted to wine aromas. Smelling stations, with examples of the complex aromas found in wine, and a huge aroma wheel that organizes tastes and smells from broad, general adjectives (such as “fruity”) to very precise nouns (such as “cherries”) give your nose and your wine vocabulary a workout.

Adults can taste wine and children grape juice in a dedicated wine tasting area. A trained instructor guides you through the wine tasting process, and the participants can exchange their impressions to help sharpen their tasting skills.

The final stop on the visit is a boutique with a selection of regional wine and gourmet products, allowing you to purchase a souvenir of your visit. La Cité de la Vigne et du Vin is open every day in July and August from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Other times of the year, it’s open from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Admission for adults is €6; children from 8 to 15 years of age pay €3, and children under age 8 enter for free. Call +33 (0) for more information.

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Louise Hurren May 8, 2010 at 12:42

Tom, I’ve been toying with the idea of visiting this place but was wondering if I’d be underwhelmed. By the sound of it, I’ve been missing out – thanks for a very comprehensive account. It’s pouring with rain right now, and there are many public holidays coming up… Cité de la Vigne et du Vin, here we come!

tomfiorina May 8, 2010 at 15:00

Thanks, Louise, for your comment. La Cité de la Vigne et Vin is an interesting place, particularly, I believe, for children. Maybe you can spend more time exploring Gruissan, as well. It was cold and rainy when I was there, but, if you can wait for a sunny day, the circular village would be nice to explore. And if you’re interested in windsurfing, someone from that area told me that the world windsurfing speed record was set there. The Tramontane turns out to be useful for something other than keeping vines somewhat disease- and bug-free.

Wink Lorch May 8, 2010 at 15:23

What a great sounding place, Tom, glad you finally got there and, of course, that you wrote about it to give us all the details. Must see about adding it to my Narbonne guide.

I just loved reading about the fast-growing-cycle vines – how innovative!

tomfiorina May 8, 2010 at 18:42

Thanks, Wink. I’d like to have one of those magic greenhouses for my backyard, as well.

Ryan O'Connell May 9, 2010 at 19:02

Wow, your impression is so much more positive than mine. 😀

Maybe I’ll have to give the place a second chance.

tomfiorina May 22, 2010 at 09:53

Maybe it wasn’t clear in my article, Ryan, that the Cité de la Vigne et du Vin isn’t really for experienced winemakers such as you. I’d add the caveat that it might be interesting if you managed to speak to some of the INRA researchers who are working there. I wasn’t able to do that on my visit, but maybe I’ll try to revisit it with that goal in mind. However, for children or for those who want to learn more about wine, winemaking or viticulture, I think that there’s a great deal there that might be of interest. Which is why I recommended, in my tweet to you, that you might view the Cité differently when you have some children to entertain. But then again, your progeny would undoubtedly grow up on a vineyard, so this might not interest them as much as, say, a visit to Parc Astérix. Thanks for your comment (and tweets); they made a good point about my article and this type of visit.

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