Three varieties (cv. Pobeda, Katya and Sadovo) of winter wheat (Triticum aestivum), differing in their agronomic characteristics, were analysed during progressive soil water stress and recovery at early vegetation stages. Changes in abscisic acid content, SDS–PAGE and immunoblot profiles of proteins that remained soluble upon heating were monitored. Initially higher ABA content in control Pobeda and Katya corresponded to earlier expression of the studied late embryogenesis abundant (LEA) proteins. A combination of higher ABA content, early immunodetection of dehydrins, and a significant increase of WZY2 transcript levels were observed in drought-stressed leaves of the tolerant variety Katya. One-step RT-PCR analyses of some acidic dehydrin genes (WCOR410b, TADHN) documented their relatively constant high expression levels in leaves under drought stress during early vegetative development. Neutral WZY2 dehydrin, TaLEA2 and TaLEA3 transcripts accumulated gradually with increasing water deficit. Delayed expression of TaLEA2 and TaLEA3 genes was found in the least drought-tolerant wheat, Sadovo. The expression profile of WZY2 revealed two distinct and separate bands, suggesting alternative splicing, which altered as water stress increased.