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PARIS (Reuters Life!) - An ecology-minded Rhône valley vintner maker has found a novel way to meet wine lovers by offering tastings over the Internet.
Of course one cannot smell or taste wines through a computer screen but Laurent Habrard has made tasting his wines available at the click of a mouse.
Anybody interested in his wines -- Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and rose wines from the Ardèche, Drôme and côtes du Rhône areas -- can order samples on his site (www.domainehabrard.com).
These are sleek glass tubes of 60 ml (2.112 fl oz).
One tube costs 3.90 euros ($4.98) and a set of three 6.90 euros. But Habrard reimburses these costs when a taster turns into a buyer.
"It all started because of my deep wish to change our production methods so that my profession has a better relationship with the natural elements," said Habrard who is the fifth generation of his family to make wines at the village of Gervans, situated roughly between Lyon and Valence.
Gervans is known for its Crozes-Hermitage wines, apricots and a water-power station in the Rhône river.
Habrard started turning the vineyards into an ecological project in 2008 and plans to have fully converted the methods of production by 2011.
That means conserving rain water, isolating the buildings for energy conservation, using wind and sun power as electricity sources and cutting back on carbon dioxide emissions.
The Domaine Habrard uses used oak barrels, natural cork, is careful about using chemicals and Habrard has connected the site to the municipal waste water treatment system.
"All of that has a cost that my company cannot afford in its current state -- I have to sell more bottles and sell them via the channel that I have chosen; the Internet," he said.
Cutting out the middlemen means reducing transport of bottles and therefore fewer CO2 emissions. Habrard uses the postal service for deliveries and Habrard says that because the post makes its daily journeys anyhow, the wine deliveries do not create much more CO2 emissions.
He says the taste tubes in a way reproduce the visits to his winery.
"People arrive, I greet them, we talk about the wines and the production, I offer some samples to taste and they do or do not buy some bottles," he said.
The tubes were designed with help from the Arts et Métiers engineering school in Paris and the INRA agricultural research institute of Montpellier.
The tubes are filled in a vacuum and Habrard says that he and his oenologist (www.oenologist.org) have found no loss of the taste in the process.
Habrard took over the winery in 1998 and started modernizing the production. Until then they made Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage wines but in 2006 the Domaine Habrard made its first Saint-Joseph, from a neighboring wine area.
The Côtes du Rhône wines are less well-known internationally than their northern neighbors in Burgundy or the great names of the Bordeaux.
But it is the second-biggest AOC wine-growing area in size, behind Bordeaux and ahead of the Loire valley, with 79,045 hectares and 6,000 wine makers.
There are some 17 different appellations, of which Châteauneuf du Pape, Côte-Rôtie and Crozes-Hermitages are among the better known, but it also includes Condrieu, Cornas, Gigondas or Château-Grillet. (www.vins-rhone.com).
The grapes include the Syrah -- well known from Australian, south African and Californian wines -- but also the less spread-out Grenache Noire and Mourvèdre grapes for the reds.
The whites include grapes with romantic sounding names as Marsanne, Bourboulenc, Viognier, Clairette as well as Grenache Blanche.
Secondary grapes are called Carignan, Cinsault, Counoise, Camarèse, Vaccarèse or Picpoul. But often it is not the grape that makes the wine but the soil.
Habrard uses the same grapes for its three appellations, which differ in taste and characteristics because of where they are planted.
Habrard, which proudly calls himself Independent Winemaker (vigneron independant) and adheres to CO2 reduction schemes such as goodplanet.org and actioncarbone.org, works on difficult ground.
During a growing season, each plant is handled between five and nine times, which means that on a hectare of 7,000 plants, there are between 35,000 and 63,000 manipulations, Habrard said.
"Man often has to replace the tractor for long and tedious tasks, but because of that the work is done with care and reflection."
Editing by Paul Casciato