CHAMPAGNE & TERROIR - Interview with Professor Nathalie
Originally from Montréal, Canada, Nathalie is the Director of MSc Wine & Gastronomy and a marketing professor at the NEOMA Business School in Reims. Not only she specializes in consumer behavior relative to wine, terroir products and sustainability, but she is also the co-owner of Prises de Mousse, a champagne bar & boutique located in the heart of the Montagne de Reims.
What is your definition of the terroir & What makes terroir so interesting for you?
My definition of terroir is simple yet complex – it's a sense of place. But in order to understand that sense, you need to know about the place, its soil, its climate, its people, its processes, its history. Terroir is the ultimate social construction. It's a way for entities within a unique place to gather and structure their perceptions of where they live and how important products they make are. However, that social construction is not static but dynamic. It changes over time and is adapted by the users for the consumers. Laws can change, history can be written, processes improved. One thing does not change, however: the geographical place. That means that terroir is a living, breathing concept within the boundaries of the location.
What is most intriguing about terroir is how it is the narrative of those using it, which is also why it is a social construction. In many cases, grower champagne is about expressing terroir – accepting variability in vintages and stewarding what the year has to offer. Alternatively, for many houses, champagne represents invariance and the constant style that has become equated to the place. Both are terroir approaches, just defended in different ways and nonetheless uniting.
Using a social construction approach allows for terroir as a qualifier to travel and be defined in many different places, not just in France. For example, terroir in Champagne is deeply rooted in history, in specific grapes, in climate, in-process, and importantly, in signature styles. But there is also terroir in Quebec. That terroir is also based on climate, on a shorter history, on technology, on hybrids, and more recently, on natural wines.
But to understand what terroir means, consumers need the sense of place to resonate with them – they have to have some knowledge. For French consumers, the word terroir is equated with quality (although before it was a pejorative qualifier). For low involvement consumers, it just means "better," but for higher involvement consumers it can mean much more: more respectful, more authentic, more agricultural, less industrial, etc.
For an American consumer, terroir may not mean anything. First, because it's not an English word, and next, because they don't necessarily know that it applies to wine, or they may not have a schema of the place in mind when consuming the wine (not all Americans have a visual image or have been to Champagne). That's also why many producers and marketers often pair terroir with another qualifier in order to help consumers make associations. For example, pairing terroir with "organic" or terroir with "small producer.” These pairings add variability to the definition of terroir, sometimes even confusion.
Overall, terroir is still somewhat ambiguous and mysterious, which is why it's so very interesting to contemplate, especially from a consumer psychology perspective.
What do you love most about Champagne?
Champagne, the product and the region, is an ecosystem for me. It's a fascinating brand story, an excellent place to understand what can motivate firms that normally compete to work together to leverage a valuable common asset, a product that has tangible value propositions (manual harvest, long aging, heritage, geology, and geography), and a wonderfully beautiful landscape that merits to be discovered by the world. Because champagne is more than the product, it’s first and foremost a place with lots of hidden gems.
I'm constantly moved by the people I meet and their stories, which you can taste in the products they make. I hope that through the champagne product, place, and stories, I can motivate my students and my clients to value products with an origin. And I especially want them to know how to properly open a bottle of champagne...!