VIENNA -- Just north of Vienna, the highway narrows and the hills loom larger, the fields seem fragrant. It's midsummer, and the sky feels weightless, rinsed by a light rain, the rough sketch of a rainbow's arc over the road ahead. Then you start to see them -- not meadows of edelweiss, or ski slopes shuttered for summer, or children dressed in lederhosen -- but wineries.
They spread like veins through this fresh, green land, most no bigger than 100 acres and run by the members of a modern family. Centuries old, Austrian wine country is relatively undiscovered. It's sheer consumer's paradise, says Josef Schuller, an international wine specialist. He grew up in this verdant setting, worked around the world, and returned to found an Austria-focused wine school in the stunning medieval town of Rust.
Schuller might be biased, but he is not alone. There's little question about the benefits of a wine trip to Austria. The countryside is beautiful. Wine costs just over half the US retail price -- if the wine is even available in the United States. The nation has one of the world's strongest cellar-door traditions, the practice of selling wine directly to the end consumer, which persists even as the wines -- bone-dry Rieslings, peppery Gruner Veltliner, exotic reds, world-class sweet wines -- gain an international following. Wine author and columnist Jancis Robinson raves about the whites in her ''Purple Pages" on her website (www.jancisrobinson.com).
Wine specialist Stephen Tanzer has been an advocate of Austrian wines for years, and wine writer Philipp Blom is so enamored of them that he wrote a book on the subject, ''The Wines of Austria." Wine & Spirits magazine tasting director Peter Liem has been to Austrian wine country five times, and calls it ''very friendly, very convivial, and very inviting." And although almost everyone here speaks English, few Americans are yet in the know.
''In terms of sheer quality and value for money, you'd have a hard time trying to beat the great whites of Austria," says Blom from his home in Paris. ''Crystal-clear and complex aromas coupled with wonderful individuality and fabulous aging potential at a price for which you won't even get a mediocre Californian."
Take, for example, Willi Bründlmayer's estate in Langenlois, one of the first towns en route to the Wachau Valley. At 170 acres, his winery (www.bruendlmayer.at), one of Austria's largest and best, is modestly cellared on a side street above the town church. The vintner has a flair for lyricism, and it shows in his sensual wines.
''Go into the woods after a rain, and try to describe that smell," he says, referring to Gruner Veltliner, or GV, the best-known indigenous varietal. Bründlmayer was the first to make an aggressive, sparkling ''Brut," drawing sharp contrasts with ''Sekt," Austria's gentler counterpart. He was the first to release ''Alte Reben" Rieslings and GVs, allowing the consumer to compare the output of old vines against new. All are worth trying.
Langenlois is full of wineries; many staff their tasting rooms for visitors. If a winery doesn't publish its hours, call ahead. Alternatively, most Langenlois wine can be tasted at the Ursin Haus (www.ursinhaus.at), a consolidated tasting room in the center of town representing more than 50 producers.
Austrian winemakers are committed agriculturalists, toiling long hours above the ancient rock and sandstone. Gaisberg, Lamm, and Heiligenstein, names seen frequently in Langenlois and the surrounding region, are single vineyards with favorable terroir.
''This is a very quiet place for making wine," says Fred Loimer, the sweep of his arm taking in both the vast scenery and his black box, a postmodern chateau wedged firmly into the hillside. Loimer's GVs are lively, light, and, at around $13, inexpensive.
These days, the biggest attraction in Langenlois is a wine museum designed by New York architect Steven Holl. The Loisium rises out of a vineyard, the visible portion a gleaming silver cube. Take the proffered earphones and blanket, descend into a deep, labyrinthine cellar, and enter a grown-up Disneyland for wine lovers. The crisp English narration tells the history of regional winemaking, but there's more than history lessons in store. The experience leaves a visitor light-headed, then deposits her in the only logical spot: the museum's wine bar, where the price of admission includes a glass of GV.
Drive six miles toward the Danube to Krems, a 1,000-year-old town of churches and monasteries. Medieval architecture aside, Krems is a decidedly modern town. Even in summer, a university keeps the population thick and lively. In the cobblestoned city center, one encounters open-air cafes, an outdoor stage, and dizzying views of ancient rooftops, backed by those steep, green terraces. In the town's cultural center are two museums. Kunsthalle Krems (www.kunsthalle.at), the more conventional, houses Impressionist masterpieces in a 19th-century cigar factory with a yawning, industrial interior. No translation is required at the Karikatur Museum (www.karikaturmuseum.at), with its outrageous permanent collection, and current, spare-no-politician exhibit by cartoonist Erich Sokol, each painting beautifully rendered. Wine is, of course, everywhere.
Follow the slope of the road to the water's edge, where a narrow path, part of a bicycle route, continues all the way to Vienna. This is where you can board the Ms. Austria (www.brandner.at) for a sail down the Danube to Melk, a town with a Benedictine abbey (www.stiftmelk.at) that dates to the time of the Babenbergs. The museum has a Baroque cathedral, a sculpture garden, a hall of portraits, and jaw-dropping views.
Also worth seeing are the castle ruins high above the neighboring town of Dürnstein, where Richard the Lionhearted was reputedly locked up on his way home from the Crusades in 1192-93. Down the street sits the Freie Weingärtner Wachau (www.fww.at), a winemaking cooperative.
Retrace your steps to head southeast, rather than northwest, from Vienna. For every thrilling curve in the Wachau, Burgenland offers a quiet glimpse of nature in motion. Austria's second-biggest wine region is flat and moist and teeming with life. At its center sits a lake, shiny-slick and rimmed with reeds. The region's sunniness is ideal for red wine grapes; its dewy climate is a boon for sweet wine called Trockenbeerenauslese.
Like Fred Loimer, Leo Hillinger in the town of Jois designed a utopian winery -- a simple glass box -- and set it in his lavish vineyard. Hillinger is credited with putting Austrian red wines on the international map. His is a nearly $5 million enterprise (www.hillinger.net) built on a dozen popular cuvees and red and white varietals, and a good place to start any tour of Burgenland.
At nearby Pöckl (www.poeckl.com), cellarmaster Rene Pöckl is only 25, but he's working with some of the oldest varietals in the world.
''We're never going to make the best syrah or pinot noir, but we do have the chance to make the best Blaufrankisch, Zweigelt, and St. Laurent the world has seen," he says, referring to the earthy, exotic Austrian reds. Continue on to WeinKulturhaus Gols (www.gols.at), a beautifully refurbished cellar that sells hundreds of wines by the bottle at cellar price, and offers dozens of tastings.
Drive around the lake to Blaufränkischland. It is in Horitschon, Deutschkreutz, and Neckenmarkt -- towns bordering Hungary -- that vintners like Johann Heinrich and his daughter Silvia have worked to revive the Blaufränkisch varietal (www.weingut-heinrich.at). Producers number in the hundreds here, too: One can taste the highly structured wines of Franz Weninger (www.weninger.com), the worthy blends of Hans Igler (www.weingut-igler.at), the ice wine created by Albert Gesellmann (www.gesellmann.at), and many more.
The little town of Rust, the home of Schuller's wine school, overflows with restaurants and rooms but not, fortunately, tourists. A visitor could spend a week here alone, tasting fine reds and Ruster Ausbruchs in the town square and dining in the range of restaurants. Be sure to look up: A stork preservation society has done good work on the rooftops; it's that kind of care for nature that shows in the wine, the setting, and the vineyards that are so easily accessible it's possible to walk, or bike, among them.
Or, head back to Vienna and explore the restaurants and Austrian wine bars with newfound expertise -- and a suitcase full of your own bottles.
Jean Tang Jean writes about food, travel, and culture from New York.