Les Indigènes is a wine bar near the main plaza, place de la Republique in the heart of Perpignan. It’s well hidden in a maze of narrow streets, and I was lucky enough to happen on it the first week of my arrival in town. I passed by it the first time, not thinking much of it until Chef Masashi Iijima in Collioure mentioned this place to me, that he’s been meaning to make a visit to select some wines for his restaurant.
Following this lead, I went in early in the evening when there were hardly anyone inside. Bruno came to me and asked me what kind of wine I wanted to try, and gave me a couple of glasses to taste. After I chose a glass of red, he said, “Do you want to taste a very good white?” and offered me another to taste. And it was very good! Later, a winemaker came to deliver some wine, and we sat and talked about this and that, all happily drinking away.
One week later, I returned to interview Bruno. What is striking is the poetry in his choice of words that is a testament to his passion for wine.
How long ago did this place open?
This place was created by my friend Christophe. He and his associate Phill started this place 1 ½ years ago, together with Jessica in charge of cuisine. The type of wine, natural wine was the compass that guided this business, because there are enormous amounts of wine in this region that are grown in the most natural, proper way possible. Christophe was working at La Vina, a large Catalan chain. He left and came to Perpignan to start Les Indigenes in October of 2009. But he’s fallen ill since, and I have been here since February this year. Last year, while living near Toulouse, I was already coming here to help out every weekend.
It’s funny because actually Christophe and I fell in love with natural wine at the same time but separately. He learnt about it when he was working in Paris, at a bar called Bistrale. I came upon wine made through a natural process, in other words wine made without pesticides, conservatives, sulfur. I bought one bottle, then a few more bottles, and since then I haven’t purchased any others. It’s funny because we were speaking on the phone one day, and he said to me, “I found something amazing in Paris,” and I said, “I found something in Toulouse,” and we landed in this business quite soon after.
Where does the name “Les Indigenes” come from?
It’s actually a play on a word. When you make natural wine, you don’t add yeast powder. With certain wines that are hammered with chemicals, there is no yeast population left. There is no yeast, so there is no fermentation. Indigenes are the yeast that are intrinsically contained within the grapes. All of the wines you see here are fermented with indigenes. The play on a word is that all locals from Perpignan are a bit on the side of indigenes, a bit foufou (crazy).
So the concept of the store really is to offer natural wine.
Yes, to provide a place where people can buy natural wine, a place that is entirely dedicated to natural wine. In the beginning, we were thinking of opening a cave, but one thing led to another, and now we open the place from 6 pm as a wine bar with some little dishes. But the goal is to develop the cave and to reopen during the day as a cavist.
How many types of wine do you offer here?
We maintain about 2,000 bottles, with about 250 references (products). When we opened we had about 400 different references. We are limited by our space. If not, we would offer more.
70% of our wines come from the department (of Pyrénées Orientales) and the rest comes from other regions, Loire, Rhone, Beaujolais, Bourgogne, … some foreign wines from Catalan, Chile, and Italy.
In the Catalan region, do you think there is a difference between Spanish and French wines?
We only have two references from Southern Catalan (the Spanish side). On the other hand, from the Northern Catalan, I have enormous number of wines. I am familiar more with those wines.
Can you speak a bit more about the variety of wines in this region?
We are lucky in this department. We have a variety of sun and weather. We also have enormous amounts of fresh air along the Albert mountain range, tremendous amount of sun around the valley of Lagly, and in Corbieres. A lot of wine makers all over France come to work in Roussillon because the range of climates allow them to produce the types of wine they want to produce.
How do you keep finding new wine makers?
We already have a large portfolio of winemakers. We have our future orders in place, so about 80% of our wines are already selected. With the remaining 20%, we choose them when we go to visit wineries. People offer us something new, and if we come across something that we fall in love with, we buy them.
Do you know all of your suppliers personally?
I know almost all of my suppliers. Most of them are friends. We eat together on weekends. That’s the advantage of knowing people you buy from. Like this, I get to check out a lot of wines, and when I fall in love with them, I offer them in our store. When you use an intermediary and don’t have direct contact with your suppliers, things are more complicated.
Are you in charge of selecting the wines?
There is a trend for natural wine right now in France?
More and more, and paradoxically, in areas that don’t have a large production of wine. In our department there is a lot of production, but almost no wine bars. On the contrary, in Toulouse or in Paris, there is enormous amount of wine bars but almost no production. So it is a phenomenon that is developing in grand table, where vin bio (natural wine) is developing.
Do you work with restaurants?
We supply about a dozen small restaurants.
Can I ask for your favorite wines?
My favorite wine … I have great affection for red wine. There is one called Visinim (wine without name) from Le Casot des Mailloles, which is magnificent. And in white, Danjou-Barnessy La Truffière 2009. It’s a wine I would drink with great pleasure if I am condemned to die from pleasure. (lol)
The philosophy of the winemaker. The way in which they talk about their work, the way in which they have relationships with things and with nature. And it’s true that not everyone is at the same level. There are those who are more passionate. If these things are not appropriate, they are difficult to work with. For us the wine is the person. It’s important for us.
I understand that you purchase wine from natural winemakers. In terms of production volume, what are the differences?
The average production volume in the department is 60 – 70 hector litter per hectare. People like Le Casot des Mailloles produces around 10 – 15 hl, so it is 4 times less. Normally the wineries we purchase from produce around 20 hl per hectare. It is a lot of investment in labor, everything is done by hand, there is no chemicals, human labor is used instead of herbicide, so it takes time. As a result, you have a bottle that is more expensive than the “classical” wine. For instance in Banyuls, Le Casot des Mailloles has vineyards on a hill with 50 degree incline, so it is very complicated to work.
There are of course the winemakers that are more welcoming than others, inviting the tourists into their establishments. But generally, winemakers are very avid to share their passion for wine – to explain, to share the fruits of their passion. It’s of course great to sell wine by entire containers, but for them, it’s important to have someone there, someone you can see who is happy and satisfied. And I think that’s what the winemakers enjoy, to have direct contacts with the consumers.
You yourself, were you always passionate about wine?
No, me, I started about 4 – 5 years ago. It’s recent. I am not trained, I am self-taught. Someone told me I have to drink a lot to know about wine, and I listened to this advice. (lol) I drank a lot.
And what is it that you like about your work?
Simply put – to communicate, to share. During these years, I’ve had people over at my place, offer them good wine, to share and to discuss, and that has become my work. So it’s really pleasing.
Is there anything stressful about the job?
No, no. On the contrary, here at Les Indigenes, we take a cool approach to things. “Chilled” by wine. Here, people come and they are not afraid that they don’t know the proper terminologies because we are interested in the simple words about wine. Each person speaks in his or her own words, without any elitism. What we like is the cool approach to wine. The people can do what they please, they don’t have to know complicated words. What’s most important is what they like and don’t like.
Can you speak a little about the sulfur content in natural wine?
I am not exactly up to date on the subject matter. What I would like to say is that we work with people who put almost no sulfur in the wine, almost less than half of what is authorized. For instance, Le Casot des Mailloles doesn’t put any sulfur at all, the bottles have zero, zero sulfur.
How do certain winemakers succeed in making wine without sulfur?
It’s a risk that they take because the wine is much more fragile without sulfur. It’s difficult to conserve, and it turns very quickly into vinegar. So the majority of winemakers prefer to put 1 gram of sulfur per barrel in order to stabilize the wine. (The current rate is about 150 mg/liter for red and 200 mg/liter for white, compared with less than 20 mg /liter or none for natural wine.) Those who stand by their philosophy of zero sulfur content know that they are creating a very fragile wine, and they have to baby the wine in a steady optimal temperature, ideally around 14 ~ 15 degrees.
If not, you get sick from the wine?
No, no, it just turns into vinegar. There are also people who come here because they are allergic to sulfur. So they want wines that have very little sulfur to avoid headaches.
I am still at the beginning of my training, but many of my friends smell it right away. Me, I am able to smell it in white wine. For instance in large industrial wine, but I am not able to smell it yet in red.
What kind of experience do you want to offer to your clients here?
A visit, a post card. When people come here, they ask for a card, and I say no. I explain and ask what they like, what they want to drink, to describe what they prefer in their own words, in the way that provide them the desire to drink. I ask whether they like wines in the department or elsewhere in France. But normally I let the people speak. And depending on the word they choose, I give them a wine to try.
Your clients are mostly locals?
Yes, our regulars throughout most of the year is 60% locals. The rest are people who pass by here by chance. We do well through word of mouth, and that’s very nice. We don’t publicize, it’s our choice to not publicize.
When people come here, what range of choices do you offer for wine? Is it limitless?
Depends on my mood. (lol) In general we offer 4 ~ 5 red, some white, and rose, to give a range of something from light, floral, to woody, so that if someone tastes them in progression, there is a coherence.
I noted that here in Perpignan, because it is very hot, people drink a lot of white wine. Do you sell red wines?
In winter. We also serve hot food during winter, so we sell enormous amount of red wine. Of course in the summer we sell white, rose, naturally sparkling, but as a whole, there is a balance.
We try always to find good wine as well as good food. Even though the food we offer is limited, we know the good producer for chacuterie, good producer of vegetables.
What would you like people to know most about this place?
It’s a place to chill out. It’s cool, almost at the point of being messy, and people are at ease, as if they were at home. I have some friends in Paris working at certain caves, and the service people are snobbish. They look down at the clients. What I like here is that people here are a group of buddies, we know each other since long time, and we are all equal. I think people feel that, and that’s what they like. After that, in terms of technique, it’s sufficient to speak about the wine. The place is cool, like being your own place.
I remember you had very cool music on during business hours. What kind of music do you play?
All kinds. We have records of all basic musicians. We have musicians since 20 years ago, since long time ago, and here we keep certain albums, but we have much more.
No, this is our communal collection. We have around 4 to 5 thousand in total, soul, jazz … I make a lot of comparisons between wine and music, and I think there are a lot of similarities between wine and vinyl. They are the same in spirit.
Because they are both on the side of being simple. A bit old-fashioned. There is room for imperfection, which gives qualities that are more natural, more sincere. And there is something in common between when you listen to music and when you drink wine.
Jessica shares her secrets: she procures products from the following specialty suppliers:
- Cheese: Terre d’Auvergne and les Bgiquettes
- Charcuterie: Salaison Roland Serin in Aveyron
- Vegetables: Bioccop Claira and Nicolas Payret
- Olive oil: Domaine Anagat (Calce)
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