ALLENTOWN -- Wines from prestigious grape-growing regions such as California's Napa and Sonoma valleys could soon be sharing shelf space with vintages labeled "Lehigh Valley."
Chardonnay and chambourcin made from grapes grown in Breinigsville and Bangor, for example, can carry a label saying Lehigh Valley beginning today, when the region becomes an official American Viticultural Area.
The designation means wines made from grapes grown in the region have a distinctive character influenced by the climate and soil. It's the fifth region in Pennsylvania to receive such a designation.
If all goes well, consumers could start seeing Lehigh Valley on the labels of local wines by May, when many of the wineries release the first wines from their 2007 harvest.
The AVA designation will tell wine enthusiasts a wine was made from at least 85 percent grapes grown within an area including portions of Lehigh, Northampton, Berks, Schuylkill, Carbon and Monroe counties.
The region includes nine wineries covering more than 230 acres. Local wineries have been seeking the designation for five years.
"We're hoping people will be able to pick up a wine, and it will smell and taste like a Lehigh Valley wine," said Kari Skrip Driscoll of Clover Hill Vineyards & Winery in Breinigsville, Pa.
Winemakers believe a Lehigh Valley label will make drinkers take the vintages more seriously.
"We are maturing as an industry," said Brad Knapp of Pinnacle Ridge Winery in Kutztown. "This should help legitimize our wine-making."
"It's prestigious," added John Landis of Vynecrest Winery in Breinigsville. "It recognizes that this area is a good grape-growing area. And if you have good grapes, you will have good wine."
The Lehigh Valley will join more than 185 regions nationwide designated as American Viticultural Areas. California, with 95, has the majority. But the number on the East Coast is growing.
Areas that already have earned the designation in Pennsylvania are Lancaster Valley, the central Delaware Valley, Cumberland Valley and the Lake Erie region.
The Lehigh Valley area will include the Valley from Jim Thorpe to Easton, portions of the Schuylkill Valley and the Brodhead Creek watershed and parts of Stroudsburg, Bethlehem, Allentown and Reading.
With a climate comparable to central or northern Europe, Lehigh Valley vineyards can grow popular grapes such as chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. But grapes that prefer a cooler climate such as chambourcin, called the "jewel of the Lehigh Valley," vidal blanc and riesling, do best.
"Grapes that do well in Australia don't do well here," Mr. Knapp said.
Now the area produces 15 to 20 percent of the state's wine, according to Mr. Landis.