Alsace, France -- Driving through the verdant, rolling vineyards of Alsace at the French- German-Swiss border, tourists maneuver through tiny hamlets with half-timbered houses festooned with flower boxes, ancient villages of stone and lovely little shops. It feels as if nothing has changed since the 1600s.
Fathers have always taught their sons how to make wine and the best traditional companies produce the same stunning wines they always have. Yet behind that studied facade, Alsace is starting to change.
In the last two decades, a group of young winemakers -- some from outside the region -- has brought energetic, independent thinking to Alsace, thanks to their sophisticated enology, viticultural and business education, often obtained elsewhere.
You can taste the strength and passion of the new generation. Quality is still key, but the wines are somehow more pristine, with brilliant intensity. They glow with life on the palate, as if they have been lit from the back.
Increased balance, clarity, concentration and power are the new goals. To accomplish this, modern techniques -- denser planting of vineyards, picking riper grapes at harvest, organic and biodynamic farming practices, more gentle pressing, longer fermentations, new clones, new yeast strains and improved equipment -- are some of the changes.
Some might suggest that these new wines are more "international" in style, referring to the sameness and lack of terroir (the influence of climate and soil) currently in vogue as new wine areas try to compete on the world market.
But that's not the case in Alsace. The new generation is making wines that are definitively from Alsace, but at the same time, more focused and powerful. They include two young dynamos at domaines Albert Boxler and Bott-Geyl, and two of the most prestigious traditional families, Trimbach and Weinbach-Faller.
Domaine Albert Boxler
Albert Boxler is a 300-year-old family winery in the small town of Niedermorschwihr, now run by Jean Boxler, 31, who trained at France's top wine university, University of Montpellier. Jean made his first vintage in 1995.
"The terroir of Alsace is so complex and unique that you can't learn that at school,'' he says. "I learned much more from my father than at Montpellier."
The domaine is small and comprised of Jean, his wife, his parents and three workers. The Boxlers live and work in a house and winery built in 1619; the vineyards include parts of the famous Grand Cru vineyards, Sommerberg and Brand. In fact, 80 percent of their land is Grand Cru classification.
Jean's style is one of firm acidity. His 1995 wines are dense, succulent, elegant and barely showing any age due to the acidity. His favorite varietal is Riesling, followed by deep-textured, flavorful Pinot Gris. The grapes are grown organically.
Boxler says his wines are "neither traditional nor modern. My style is natural -- nature makes the wine, not me. This is not to please the customer, but to work with the land and keep it healthy. This is the old traditional."
By phone, he adds, "My wines are different from my father's in some ways. The production per hectare is less now, the climate is changing and I like the wines to be deeper with more concentration. But the vinification is the same and the varietals are classic."
When you walk into the winery of Jean-Christophe Bott and Valerie Bott-Cartier in Beblenheim, you are impressed with his intense passion. Jean-Christophe, 35, wants to share his wines the way a child wants to show you a straight-A report card. His enthusiasm is that intense.
His father, Edouard Bott, founded Bott-Geyl in 1953. In 1993 he turned the reins over to Jean-Christophe, who uses no chemicals or pesticides and farms naturally in the biodynamic format, which goes beyond organic by using energy forces of nature such as movement of the sun and moon. The winery is certified both organic and biodynamic.
"My goal," Bott says, "is to bring together the traditional and the modern. Respect for the land brings healthier soil, which enables the sun and the plant to produce more dynamic wines. We must make the most of the terroir.
"The modern methods that respect the grape and the wine uphold the traditional method. The new generation, of which I am a part, is very aware of ecology. And we employ new methods such as whole grape pressing, using less sulfite, long fermentations with indigenous yeasts, aging on the lees and no fining."
All the wines, from the simple to the rare and amazing Selection de Grains Nobles, carry the house signature -- intensity, tight acidity and intriguing nuances of terroir. Bott attributes this style to changes he made since taking over from his father, such as severe pruning, increasing the plantings to 7,000 vines per hectare (a hectare is 2.47 acres), decreasing the yield and harvesting very ripe.
"I think my wines have more structure, complexity and flavor than my father's," he says. "But sometimes we taste my father's wines and we still find terroir and good wines. That means we are not far from each other. That is why he understands what I am doing and why he encourages me."
Trimbach began in 1626 at the village of Ribeauville and 12 generations of family have overseen the vineyards and winemaking. Now the winery is in the hands of Jean Trimbach, 44, in charge of marketing since 1984, and brother Pierre Trimbach, 48, who joined the company in 1979 and started as winemaker in 1985.
They produce 100,000 cases a year from their 40-year-old vineyards. About 45 percent of the production is sent to America.
Jean Trimbach describes the Trimbach style as, "intense fruitiness, clean, and excellent ripe acidity with a dry, elegant finish." Trimbach uses no malolactic fermentations or oak aging. When other houses started replacing old vines with new clones about 15 years ago, Trimbach stayed fast.
"I see no reason to grow 'Gucci' grapes (designer clones that are the newest rage) when the grapes are perfect as they are," Jean Trimbach says. "The soul, history and culture of a wine area is lost if you go 'international' in style."
He is disappointed that some wines are being made with more residual sugar to satisfy some consumers. He says, "The traditional style of Alsace is and always has been dry. Sugar is left to attempt an illusion of richness because the wines are not profound enough."
Domaine Weinbach, in Kaysersberg, is traditional in its property, label and technique, but "traditional" doesn't describe its exotic wines, which are almost decadent in their opulence. The Faller family allows the grapes to ripen as much as possible in order to achieve a style that is powerful, sensuous and worthy of aging.
Capucin monks built the winery in 1612. The Fallers bought the property in 1898, including the legendary Clos des Capucins vineyard. It has four types of soil and produces mature grapes of high quality and complexity. Maybe the ancient vineyard is responding to the gentle hands of winemaker Laurence Faller.
In 1979, when Theo Faller died, his wife, Colette, continued running the administrative and commercial parts of the business, and also picked up the technical side. Jean Trimbach says Laurence Faller is the first woman in Alsace to run a wine company.
Laurence and her sister, Catherine Faller, helped their mother run the family business and the firm flourished.
"The one of us at Domaine Weinbach who led the way and opened the path (for women) is ... our mother, Colette," Laurence says. "I can say there was more than one skeptic who doubted that she would be capable of upholding, much less improving, the reputation earned under Theo. Some neighbors were so pessimistic that they assumed failure from women, and kindly offered the charity of renting some of our world-class vineyards."
The domaine is now owned by Catherine and Laurence; Catherine's son, Theo, joined them two years ago to assist the vineyard manager. The Fallers have farmed organically for 10 years and will have their first all-biodynamic vintage this year.
So try the wines of Alsace. The quality is superb and the wines go with almost any cuisine. And it seems they will continue to evolve and improve.