Ultimately wine appreciation is about the glorious moment when distinctive wine and discerning taste buds rapturously converge. Having visited over 150 wineries, I can assure you that this pleasure is possible at a winery wine tasting even after something as stressful, for example, as my rain-drenched late-night arrival on Dec. 8, 1995 in still-restless Herzegovina, well ahead of U.N. troops, knowing no one and having nowhere to stay.

As luck would have it, the driver designated to pick us up had been in an auto accident and was in hospital. You haven’t lived, I guess, until you’ve pulled your exhausted wife and tiny kids out of a jam-packed bus into a dim-lit pot-holed downpour in what had been, only days earlier, a war zone — and all for a wine story.

Religiously speaking, Herzegovina was known as a “miracle town,” but for us the miracle was managing to find a place to sleep, thanks to a helpful Croatian lady. The next day it all ended well, at a winery. Wine endures. It’s amazing.

Good wine justifies a lot, I guess, but having said that, one of things that makes wine tasting in Austria so pleasurable is the ease with which one can segue from Vienna airport to one fine Austrian wine town after another, and enjoy wine tastings with proud, accomplished winemakers at little wineries with big quality.

As I’ve hired myself hither and thither as a food, wine and travel writer, I’ve often thought certain small countries unquestionably rank with the best. Among some particularly outstanding small countries I much enjoy — Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria and Slovenia, to name a few — Austria stands out.

With each visit to Austria I appreciate Austrian wines even more. Now highly regarded by topflight international wine critics, Austrian wines are clearly among the world’s best. They’re quite affordable at wine bars and at restaurants even in Vienna, a marvelous city — but don’t forget such lovely wine towns as Illmitz, Krems, Langenlois, and, down in the southeast corner, Gamlitz, justifiably likened to Tuscany for its picturesque beauty.

On occasion I’ve sung the praises of wine country in eastern Austria, and doubtless will do so again, since a visit to this enviable area fulfills the wine-lover’s ideal. It’s scenic, hospitable and affordable. Little noted is the fact that about an hour by car from Vienna in the area of Neusiedlersee (Lake Neusiedler) is the Hafner Winery, a maker of highly regarded Kosher wines, which has been in continuous operation for quite a few generations.

My focus this column, however, is a visit I made a month ago to several excellent wineries in Lower Austria, where I sampled some wonderful wines. Cleft by the Danube, Lower Austria is the largest of all the Austrian provinces. Heading out from Vienna, one glides along superhighways through verdant valleys trimmed by austere stands of trees ranged across the hilltops like slender sentinels, and gradually slips into the soft embrace of the Austrian Alps. Here a winery, there a winery. Everything as neat as a wedding dress. If the wineries are small, the hospitality is always considerable.

Lower Austria wines are more than 60 percent whites, the fascinating Gruner Veltliner predominating, followed by riesling, but the reds, such as zweigelt, are also superb. And in this area, so is the food.

One highlight was the white wines of Winzer Krems, imported into Japan by Yutaka Gomaibashi (fax: [0198] 48-30-37), an interesting winemaker whom I’ll return to in a later column. The Winzer Krems ’98 Gruner Veltliner scored an 88 — “Best Buy, Highly Recommended” — from the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago. Another standout was Weingut Sonnhof Jurtschitsch in Langenlois, imported by Austria World Association (Norbert Tesch, fax: [0798] 72-5021, e-mail: awainc@mte.biglobe.ne.jp).

If you’ve some time on your hands June 3-5, fly to Vienna for Vino Vinum, a mind-blowing biennial wine show held in the Emperor’s Palace. If you can’t go, watch “The Genesis of Wine in Austria,” an excellent video (contact the Austrian Embassy).

Coming up: Vinexpo at Tokyo Big Sight (June 6-8), one of the world’s most spectacular wine shows and this year in Tokyo. Austria will have a big Vinexpo presentation where you can try all kinds of Austrian wines, among others. See you there? Cheers! Bon appetit!

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