The powerful trade association that represents champagne makers has sued bloggers, water bottlers and haute couture fashion brands. They warned Apple against calling the gold iPhone “champagne” and spent three years making sure that no one but French producers could snag champagne-related wine URLs.
But on Thursday the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne scored an even more significant victory, when Europe’s highest court suggested in a nonbinding ruling that even products containing the French sparkling wine may not be able to use the name “champagne.”
The opinion from the European Court of Justice — on a product sold by the discount grocer Aldi as “Champagne sorbet” — reinforces and expands the reach of European Union laws that dictate that only Portuguese dessert wine can be called “port,” and that only the British-made blue cheese can be called “Stilton.”
While the opinion is not final, experts say it furthers the Champagne region’s effort to protect its brand.
“Champagne is fighting this battle in Europe, and they seem to be winning,” said Bernard O’Connor, a managing partner at the European law firm Nctm who specializes in trade and agriculture law. “It seems logical that they’ll next take the fight to global markets.”
The case in question involved “Champagne sorbet,” which Aldi sold at a number of its German stores in 2012. The dessert contained 12 percent champagne — the real kind, from France — but the Comité Champagne claimed the use of the protected name on a non-wine product risked cheapening it.
Under long-standing European law, hundreds of traditional foods, wines and spirits that are closely linked to a specific region enjoy special protections: They’re granted exclusive use of the regional product name, and legally guarded against a range of infringements.
Stilton cheese must be produced in the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire in Britain, using pasteurized local milk. (It cannot, ironically, be made in the nearby town of Stilton.) Port specifically describes a fortified wine produced in Portugal’s Douro Valley. Feta, Manchego, Roquefort and Asiago must come from Greece, Spain, France and Italy, respectively.
Even indirect or passing uses of protected names are illegal, in many instances. Food producers cannot “misuse, evoke or imitate” a protected name, which has been interpreted in several national and EU-level cases to mean that they can’t use it to label, advertise or draw a comparison to other products.
In other words, Miller High Life — the “champagne of beers” — would not fly in Europe.
In this case, however, the product contained the ingredient: It was 12 percent champagne. Aldi — which has long since stopped selling the dessert in question — has argued that its product couldn’t possibly be said to exploit the champagne brand or mislead consumers.
“Aldi and Galana invoked the right to use a correct and non-misleading trade denomination,” a lawyer for Galana, the sorbet manufacturer, said in a 2014 statement. “According to the defendants, the use of ‘Champagne’ for a sorbet containing Champagne was justified.”
But the opinion released Thursday by Advocate General Manuel Campos Sanchez-Bordona took a broad interpretation of name protections, ruling that food manufacturers may only use the name of a protected ingredient if the final product also captures its “essential characteristics.” They may also not market the product on the basis of its protected ingredient.
“The producer and distributor [of the champagne sorbet] hope to evoke in the mind of their consumers the quality and prestige associated with this designation of origin, and extend it to the sorbet,” he wrote of Aldi's product.
The Advocate General’s opinion is not the end of the matter: A final judgment will be issued by the European Court of Justice within a few months, and is expected to mirror Bordona’s position. The case will then return to a German court, where it began, though the Court of Justice precedent will stand throughout Europe.
Even at this stage, however, the judgment is a win for protected products and sets an important precedent, experts said.
“If the European Court of Justice adopts the opinion of the Advocate General then protected products, even when used as ingredients, will continue to enjoy a high level of protection,” said Katie Vickery, who heads the food and drink practice at European law firm Osborne Clarke.
That sort of protection is gaining traction, even outside the EU.