12. Jan 22

Munich court throws its weight behind protected designations of origin in Champagne dispute

Food products that feature Champagne in their name should actually taste like Champagne. That was the verdict of the Oberlandesgericht (OLG) München – the Higher Regional Court of Munich – in a judgment from July 1, 2021 (case ref.: 29 U 1698/14).

Champagne, a drink often served on festive occasions, is not merely a sparkling drink but also a protected designation of origin that cannot be exploited without proper cause. Reason enough for the Association of French Champagne Producers to crack open a bottle and celebrate, particularly in light of the recent ruling delivered by the OLG München.

After years of legal wrangling, we at the commercial law firm MTR Rechtsanwälte can now report that the Munich court has affirmed the importance of the protections enjoyed by designations of origin. The case concerned a dispute between Champagne producers and a discounter that had been stocking a product labelled as a “Champagne sorbet”. The Association of Champagne Producers took legal action against this, arguing that it violated the protected designation of origin “Champagne”.

The case even reached the Bundesgerichtshof (BGH) – Germany’s Federal Supreme Court – and the European Court of Justice (ECJ). In a ruling from December 20, 2017, the ECJ held that use of the term Champagne is only legal if the relevant product’s taste can be attributed primarily to Champagne, otherwise its use constitutes unlawful exploitation of the reputation of a protected designation of origin for the purposes of unjustifiably benefiting from said reputation.

And this was exactly what the sorbet in question was found to be lacking despite consisting of roughly 12% Champagne. According to one expert assessment, the sorbet’s dominant flavor was that of pears. For this reason, the OLG München deemed the product’s description as a Champagne sorbet to be misleading to consumers, reasoning that it amounted to unlawful exploitation of the designation of origin “Champagne”. The Court noted that the discounter had benefited greatly from the positive public image of the protected designation of origin and refused leave to appeal on the grounds that both the BGH and the ECJ had already addressed the case.

The ruling is likely to send a signal and strengthen the protection of designations of origin, which – like trademarks – represent major assets due to, among other reasons, consumers associating a certain level of quality with the product. Other businesses are not allowed to take undue advantage of this aura of prestige and in so doing mislead consumers.

Lawyers with experience in the field of trademark law can provide counsel.

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