Eating & drinking: Beside the blue Danube

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I AM going to say something that may make you laugh out loud. When you've finished laughing, please suspend disbelief and read on with an open mind. Fair deal? OK, here goes: Austria makes some of the best wines in the world, and you should buy more of them. (Pause for laughter.)

Feeling better now? Good, because I'm dead serious. Austria produces decent reds in its four principal wine regions, all in the warmer eastern area of the country. But its greatest wines are white, and this article will concentrate on just one region - the source of some of the greatest drinks to have ever passed my lips. If you take a map of Austria and move your finger from Vienna about 50 miles west along the Danube, you will find Krems. This is the beginning of the Wachau, a river valley whose steep slopes are covered with vines. This is white grape country.

The poor, mineral-laden soils produce world-class quality Riesling, long-lived and ranging in impact from lightly delicate to big and lush. Better still, for my money, is Austria's own Gruner Veltliner. The flavours of this extraordinary grape are reminiscent of spices, freshly ground pepper, smoked bacon, and - I'm not kidding - lentils. Gruner Veltliner, in the hands of skilled winemakers, produces complex, long-lived, utterly delicious wines.

A visit to the Wachau provides verification of the theory of terroir. The vine-growing area, though only about 20km long and 1,450 hectares in size, has three distinct microclimates. Each microclimate enfolds individual sites whose soil and exposure give their wines a unique character. The best vineyards are on well-drained slopes with stony soils, and the steepest slopes are laid with terraces - some of them 1,000 years old. Terraced vineyards look great and produce great wine - think of the Douro and the Mosel. But they have an ugly side: money. According to grower Rudy Pichler, the lower vineyards need 300 worker-hours a year while the steeper vineyards need 2,500 hours. In a country where labour is relatively well paid, this translates into high prices.

On a recent trip I tasted wines by different producers from vines separated by a few minutes' walk. They are all different. The great producers are those who manage their vineyards and make their wines with fanatical care. Human intervention is the final, crucial ingredient in the cocktail of qualities that constitute terroir.

The current vintages are 1997, which was a very good year, and 1998, one of the most difficult in living memory. Rain led to an unprecedented level of Botrytis cinerea (noble rot), followed by warm weather which ripened the grapes to sometimes terrifying levels of potential alcohol. And the harvest was a living hell. "We did the harvest on our hands and knees," says one grower, "because so many of the grapes fell before we could pick them." Production was mostly down by about 25 per cent. But the quality at its best was wonderful, with the botrytis adding layers of honeyed complexity even in dry wines.

That's the good news. The bad news is that they make very little wine - about 60,000 bottles in an average year, of which the vast majority are consumed by the affluent Austrian market. And consumed too young. Fritz Miesbauer, the talented young winemaker for the co-operative Freie Weingartner Wachau, says the local market "would like to be drinking the 1999s already". (He said this in June, when the 1999 grapes weren't even grapes yet.) That leaves a skimpy smattering for export. And there's more bad news. These wines are expensive, and hard to find. Austria, by nature, will never be a mass-market hit. But drinkers who can afford the stuff are waking up to its virtues. Morris & Verdin (0171 357 8866) has recently started selling wines from Prager, one of the Wachau's leading producers, at about pounds 18 to pounds 22 a bottle. And M&V's Lucy Faulkner says: "We are amazed at how well these wines are selling."

I won't deny that the price puts these wines beyond many drinkers' purchasing power. But please consider two things. These wines are among the greatest on the planet and prices are far lower than for comparable wines from Burgundy or the Mosel. For the best Wachau Gruner Veltliner (and Riesling, too), the price/quality ratio makes these wines a bargain. Are you convinced? Then come back next week for a round-up of selected wines and suppliers. Even if you're not, I hope you've stopped laughing.