No packaging, a lighter bottle, the end of air freight: how does a luxury Champagne house’s choice of positioning guide decisions about bottles, packaging, and labels? Ludovic du Plessis, the CEO of Champagne Telmont since 2020, who has been described as the region’s "change maker," explains.
He’s considered something of a rabble-rouser in Champagne. While some criticize his disruptive methods, Ludovic du Plessis brushes them aside. In fact, the CEO of Champagne Telmont is delighted. "We're breaking the mold. That’s why we’re seen as the enfants terribles, the troublemakers, of Champagne," he says. "We’re more like change makers. We’re not here to cause trouble: we’re here to make positive changes and share our initiatives with others in order to help Champagne evolve in the right direction. The project is serious. It's bringing positive disruption."
Objective: Net Positive by 2050
The project materialized in 2021 as a program du Plessis calls Au nom de la terre (In the name of the Earth). The goal is to be "climate positive" by 2030 and "net positive" by 2050. "This means reducing our carbon footprint by 90% by 2050. Why? Simply because we want to meet the Paris Agreements to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees," he explains.
To achieve this, the company is going to radical lengths, starting with a conversion to organic farming. "We can’t stop at biodiversity. We have to stop using herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizers," insists du Plessis. "And while it’s good to farm organically on your own land, all the grapes you buy must also be organic. We’re in the process of convincing our winemaking partners one by one. We’re helping them both technically and financially during the three-year conversion period." The brand has set itself the goal of making the family vineyard fully organic by 2025 and grapes from partner winegrowers organic by 2031.
Zero packaging & lightweighted bottles
Du Plessis’s other preoccupation is gift boxes. "We have to get rid of them," he says. "It’s central to our fight as the best packaging is no packaging. We’re breaking codes. I’m buckling down on this because it reduces the carbon footprint of each bottle produced by 8%." And he can be pleased with his efforts: "Sales are on the rise in the US, Japan and France," he affirms. More than 200,000 bottles were shipped in 2022, of which 80 to 85% were exported. "The new generation is not looking for gift boxes, but for true luxury, simplicity, transparency, and authenticity. They want to buy wine, not a gift box."
The Champagne brand has made three choices regarding the bottle itself. The first was to stop using special formats. "It’s ecological heresy, we can’t afford to do that," maintains the CEO, in line with his mission. The second decision was to switch from the traditional 835-gram Champagne bottle to an 800-gram bottle. "We made a choice to carry out an initial test on 3,000 bottles, and it was a success. As a result, we’re producing 30,000 bottles this year; 150,000 in 2024; 250,000 the year after, and so on. This is something we will do gradually. The first bottles will be on the market by 2025, because our Réserve Brut is aged for three years," he explains. "Verallia has been a long-time partner: we’re very proud to be the first brand they can test this type of bottle with."
The third decision was do away with transparent bottles. "They include 0% recycled glass, whereas the green bottle contains 87% recycled glass. Just by doing that, you reduce the carbon footprint by 20% percent." The executive has made his case.
A "desirable" numbered label
The labels that appear on classic Champagne bottles have to be desirable without compromising on positioning or traceability. Du Plessis explains that for Telmont, this means "numbering all our labels. It’s an ID card for wine. It’s the recipe of the year. It was a novel thing to do in Champagne. Other brands are starting to follow our lead, which is great," says a satisfied du Plessis. The latest innovation is personalization. The labels can now be printed on demand, up to three letters. Billet, a printer located near Telmont, is behind these initiatives. "Everyone involved has to work to improve their carbon footprint," says du Plessis. "Today, we recycle 87% of our glass and we hope this rate will increase. We’re also looking to reduce the amount of glue used on our labels and, in partnership with Sparflex, to improve the foils."
Telmont is also addressing the logistical side of the business. "We've stopped using air freight to ship bottles. We reviewed our entire pool of transporters and retained those with the best CSR records. We only use road and sea freight, and our fleet is made up entirely of 100% electric vehicles. Our tractors only run on biofuel, and we all ride our bikes," says du Plessis.
"By the way, the first time I arrived in Damery, it wasn’t in a chauffeured Mercedes, but on my Brompton bike," he recalls. "My team and I now cycle there three times a week from Epernay station: it’s a 25-minute ride, come rain, snow, or shine."
Au Nom de la Terre: commitment gives rise to a collective
Du Plessis initiated this new positioning as soon as he acquired Telmont, a brand founded in 1912. After just over 10 years with the LVMH group, working for Dom Pérignon and Moët & Chandon, in 2014 he joined Rémy Cointreau as International Executive Director of Louis XIII cognac , a position he held for six years. In 2020, driven by a desire to be an entrepreneur, a taste for Champagne, and a commitment to environmental convictions, he set out to take over a brand. "I left for Champagne with my bike. I wanted to buy a brand that checked four boxes: it had to have an incredible history; it had to be a family business that passes down a recognized expertise; its wines had to delight us; and it had to have started the switch to organic farming."
He now leads the company with three other shareholders: Rémy Cointreau, the majority shareholder; Bertrand Lhopital, a fourth-generation shareholder; and the actor Leonardo DiCaprio. "It was Leonardo, who’s been a friend of mine for 15 years, who got me thinking about sustainable development. He sent me lots of documentaries. He’s a spokesman for the United Nations on the notion of climate change. He’s crazy about the environment," says du Plessis.
Although du Plessis doesn’t hesitate to speak out about his company’s initiatives, he insists that "we are doing these things with a great deal of humility. We publish our results, and maybe we’ll adjust our sails in a year’s time because we’ll have learned a few things," he says. "We have to be super agile because these issues evolve very quickly. We’re learning a lot. Maybe tomorrow we’ll use a 775-gram bottle and even have a deposit-return system in place. We’ll see." He adds, "Even though we’re in the luxury-goods industry, we have a duty to be exemplary in terms of sustainability and the environment. We’re not going to wait for consumers to tell us five years from now to stop being so wasteful—we have to make the decision now."
In the meantime, the Champagne brand is creating a collective. Called Telmont: In the Name of the Earth, its members include well-known figures who have shown their commitment to environmental preservation, among them the skipper Romain Pillard, Michelin-starred chefs like Florent Pietravalle, fisherman Mathieu Chapelet, winegrowers, and other professionals who believe in the project. Their goal is to share best practices and convince others to follow their lead.