France-Amérique: Leonardo DiCaprio became a shareholder of your Champagne house last year. How did this partnership come about?
Ludovic du Plessis: We’ve known each other for about 15 years. Back then, I was starting to read about climate change, but I didn’t yet understand its true consequences. He planted the seed of sustainable development in my mind. He is highly active in his role as a U.N. spokesperson for environmental issues. He recommended the documentary Can We Cool the Planet? (2020) and it really got me thinking. I asked myself: “How can I combine one of my personal pleasure, the Champagne region, with a profession that helps the environment?”
And that’s how you acquired the Telmont winery…
Exactly! Before that, I spent ten years managing Dom Pérignon Champagne and seven years managing Louis XIII Cognac. When I started searching for a wine estate on the market, I got on my folding bike – I started riding while living in New York City! – and scoured the Champagne region. I had four criteria in mind: I was looking for a longstanding winery, family-run, offering a range of great wines, and which had already begun the transition to organic farming. Many places ticked the first three boxes, but the fourth was almost impossible to find! Barely 4% of Champagne vineyards have organic certification. Achieving this status means using no herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or fungicides. It’s as simple as that. However, Bertrand Lhôpital, the great-grandson of Telmont’s founder, had begun converting his plots. Today, the business is overseen by four shareholders: the Rémy Cointreau group, my employer, which has the majority stake, Bertrand Lhôpital, the vineyard manager and cellar master, myself, and Leonardo DiCaprio. He visited the estate and immediately understood our philosophy. He’s not the face of Telmont, but rather an investor whose ideas resonated with ours. He monitors what we do and gives us advice.
Going back to the five years you spent in New York working for the LVMH group, how did this experience influence you?
I am in love with the United States. It’s a country that has welcomed my family and I with open arms. A country with a smile and a positive attitude – everything I love! I am lucky enough to have three children who learned English at the Lycée Français in New York, and they have kept this positive attitude. I met inspiring people every day while I was there. Three encounters in particular really changed my life: Leonardo DiCaprio, Serena Williams, and Spike Lee. They invited me into their worlds, and it is amazing to be able to exchange ideas with people like them. This, combined with Manhattan’s vertical architecture, helped to define who I am today. In Paris, I could have stayed in Cognac, directing a superb brand like Louis XIII, but America encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone. I wanted to try new things and take risks.
You want to produce the best Champagne, as sustainably as possible, and without compromising on the environment. How are you approaching such an ambitious challenge?
Through In the Name of Mother Nature, a project we launched on June 21, 2021. To guide us, we have enlisted the help of leading specialists, including environmental strategy consultancy Quantis [which also works with Apple, Bel, Chevron, EDF, General Mills, SNCF, Starbucks, and Unilever]. Faced with tackling climate change, the Paris Agreement calls for us to reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible to limit global warming to 2.7°F. Every tiny action counts. At the vineyard, we have started with the land, restoring biodiversity and planting hornbeam and cover crops to capture carbon dioxide. The Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, a local trade body, has done an extraordinary job and the entire region has joined the effort. But it’s still not enough. The transformation to organic farming needs to continue, both across our own plots and those managed by our partners. Today, 60% of our 200 acres have organic certification or are in the process of obtaining it.
Your revolution also applies to packaging…
That’s right! To achieve our goal of being net positive by 2050, meaning drastically reducing our carbon emissions and capturing more CO2 and other greenhouse gases than we emit, we need to go even further. This is what we explain in our guide to sustainable development in Champagne, published in January. Bottles themselves make up between 24% and 30% of our carbon footprint. We have therefore discontinued our “prestige” bottles, which weighed 37 ounces, compared with 30 ounces for the classic “Champenoise” bottles. With the help of glassmaker Verallia, we have reduced this to 28 ounces by developing the lightest bottle on the market. Lastly, we have stopped using transparent bottles in favor of green bottles, which are made using 87% recycled glass. We have also stopped selling gift boxes. As a result, we have reduced our carbon footprint by 8% for every bottle produced – no small feat! And in February, our “The best packaging is no packaging” policy won The Drinks Business magazine’s gold medal for best packaging! This means that attitudes are starting to change.
How would you describe your Champagne to our readers who have not yet tried Telmont? And how do organic grapes impact the flavors?
The Telmont style is all about the finesse of the bubbles. Our Champagne is full-bodied but not heavy; it is ethereal, fresh, elegant, and mature. It is also very low in sugar, as indicated on our labels – we are transparent. Its aromatic palette changes from year to year, depending on what nature provides. Then there is the question of whether organic Champagne is better than non-organic Champagne. I think this is a non-debate as taste is so subjective. However, we did start harvesting yesterday [September 5], and I have found more rot on the conventional grapes than on the organic ones. And on the palate, organic grapes do have a unique punch and texture…
You export 30% of your annual production to the United States. This represents between 100,000 and 130,000 bottles – a drop in the ocean when considering the major brands flooding the U.S. market. How do you set yourself apart?
Telmont is driven by exclusivity. Over 70% of our sales are in restaurants, and we work with influential establishments whose priorities include sustainable development, such as Josselin Marie’s Table de Colette in Paris, Glenn Viel’s Oustau de Baumanière in Les Baux-de-Provence, Guy Savoy’s restaurant in Las Vegas, and Peak, Casa Cipriani, and Daniel Boulud’s Daniel in Manhattan. The rest of our sales are made in a careful selection of wine shops in cities such as New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, and Atlanta. You won’t find Telmont at Costco! We also make a lot of direct sales, both on our estate in Damery, near Epernay, and through our online store.
Speaking of exports, your Champagne will soon be shipped across the Atlantic by sailboat. Is this another eco-friendly gesture?
Not a single bottle has been shipped by air since June 2021, and all our shipments to America and Asia are made by boat. We concluded a partnership with the French company Neoline, which will be launching a 446-foot cargo sailboat in 2025. On the estate, our vehicles are electric and our tractors run on biofuel. We also make an effort and commute to work by train and/or bicycle! If we want to continue producing Champagne a century from now, it’s up to us to lead the way.