Champagne makers mark first win in ‘Champanillo’ legal battle after EU court ruling

According to the 2011 quality scheme regulation, registered names such as champagne are protected not only against misuse or imitation but also evocation of the place in which products are made. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that the EU’s protected designation of origin (PDO) for foodstuff and drinks extends to services, awarding the French champagne lobby a tactical win in a legal battle against a small Spanish restaurant chain.

When the French champagne lobby Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne took legal action against Champanillo, a Spanish tapas bar chain with five restaurants in the Catalonia region, the provincial court of Barcelona referred the issue to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), asking how to apply the EU’s PDO scheme on the ground.

The plaintiff argued that the term champanillo – which means ‘little champagne’ in Spanish – as well as the use of two champagne coupes in the restaurant’s logo, infringe the EU’s geographical protection granted to champagne in 1973.

On 9 September, the EU judges ruled that, in assessing the potential infringement of the geographical indications (GIs) framework, the Spanish Court must consider that the 2011 quality scheme regulation protecting PDOs applies not only to foodstuff but also to services, like restaurants in the present court case.

According to this regulation, registered names are protected not only against misuse or imitation but also evocation of the place in which products are made.

An evocation may be detected where components of the presentation, including figurative and verbal elements, are found liable to bring directly in the mind of the consumer the protected PGI name.

“The concept of ‘evocation’, within the meaning of the regulation, does not require that the product covered by the PDO and the product or service covered by the disputed name be identical or similar,” the Luxemburg-based court pointed out.

In practice, it means that rule applies even to the name like Champanillo, a chain of restaurants that, curiously, does not even serve champagne on its premises, while the protected term ‘champagne’ is linked to an alcoholic beverage.

The wide-ranging protection given to the concept of evocation led to a landmark ruling in 2019, where the ECJ found it unlawful to use the literary character Don Quixote de La Mancha for the promotion of a certain cheese, saying it “evoked” the geographical area with which the manchego cheese, which holds the PDO status, is associated.

The EU judges suggested that the Spanish tribunal should assess where there is a “conceptual proximity” between the protected name and the sign at issue. They added that evocation is established “where the use of a name creates, in the mind of an average European consumer who is reasonably well informed and reasonably observant and circumspect, a sufficiently clear and direct link between that name and the PDO.”

In order to identify this link, the Spanish court should consider several aspects, such as the partial incorporation of the protected designation, the phonetic and visual relationship between the two names and the similarity resulting from it.

The ECJ interpretation of the current EU framework on protected designations seems likely to open the door to a final national ruling in favour of champagne makers.

In a previous advisory opinion released in April, the EU Court’s advocate general took an even stronger position on the matter, saying that “the EU law protects PDO products against all parasitic commercial practices, whether they relate to goods or services.”

Champagne’s protection has been recently under attack after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a ban on the word “champagne” from the labels of all imported bottles, causing an outcry in France.

In a bid to valorise national products, Putin now wants to reserve the term (shampanskoye in Russian) to Russian sparkling wine – while all imported champagne will have to carry the description “sparkling wine” in Russian.

In response, the French Champagne Committee has called on all French champagne producers to immediately stop exportations to Russia.

French champagne houses cry foul over Russian label rule

Champagne houses in France issued a plea for diplomatic help over a new Russian law reserving the term “champagne” for Russian-produced sparkling wines, which led to a temporary interruption of supplies from the market leader Moët Hennessy.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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