EU headache: Rome explodes after Croatia handed new trademark with Italian-sounding name

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Italy said on Wednesday it would protest to the European Commission over an attempt by Croatia to get EU-protected label status for a sweet white wine which Rome says has a name that is too similar to its own famed prosecco. Brussels agreed on Tuesday to consider an application by Croatia to have its Prosek wine classified as a recognised protected label (PDO), outraging Italian producers who said the name would create confusion among consumers.

Agriculture Minister Stefano Patuanelli told state broadcaster RAI the whole Italian government would oppose the application “in an adequate and compact way”.

Croatia says its historic amber-coloured dessert wine has always been called Prosek and there is no danger of consumers confusing it with Italy’s dry, sparkling prosecco.

Italy, famed for its cuisine and food products, has often fought against recognition of “Italian-sounding” items such as Parmesan cheese, or Parma ham, which it says are mere imitations of the authentic Italian product.

Luca Zaia, governor of the northerly Veneto region, which is a major prosecco producer, called Croatia’s application “an absolute disgrace” and demanded vigorous opposition from Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government.

“They are stealing an important label from our country, it’s as if they wanted to take away Ferrari,” he said.

In agreeing to consider Croatia’s request for PDO status for prosek, the Commission said the similar sound of a name, or “homonymy”, was not always sufficient reason for an application to be rejected.

“Two homonymous terms may co-exist under certain conditions”, so long as confusion for the consumer was avoided, EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojiciechowski said on Tuesday in answer to a complaint from Italy’s right-wing League party.

Italy had hoped a European Court of Justice judgment last week would help its case for prosek to be denied PDO status.

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The court ruled the PDO label should be granted to protect products when “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”.

It is not the first time the EU Commission has been called to make an effort to defend protected European products.

The top European Union court (European Court of Justice – ECJ) backed French champagne makers on Thursday who had argued that their protection under EU law should extend far beyond banning rival sparkling wine producers from putting the word “champagne” on their bottles.

The champagne makers’ association (CIVC) is seeking to prohibit a chain of tapas bars in Spain from using “champanillo”, Spanish for “little champagne”, on signs and on social media.

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The commercial court of Barcelona rejected the CIVC’s claims since the Champanillo sign was not intended to designate an alcoholic beverage, but rather catering premises where champagne is not sold, and so products other than those protected and targeting a different market.

The CIVC appealed to Barcelona’s provincial court.

That court sought guidance from the ECJ on whether protected designations of origin (PDO), such as champagne, covered services as well as products.

The ECJ said they did cover services and were designed to offer a guarantee of quality due to geographical provenance and to prevent third parties from seeking to profit from the reputation such products had acquired.

A key part in assessing if a disputed term or sign infringes a PDO was whether it evoked a link between the two.

The EU court said this was established if use of a name created a sufficiently clear and direct link in the mind of an average European consumer who is “reasonably well informed and reasonably observant and circumspect”.

The EU judges said it was for the provincial court in Barcelona to make a definitive ruling in the case, bearing in mind the EU court’s clarifications.

The champagne industry group is also contesting a new Russian law that forces foreign producers to add a “sparkling wine” reference to their bottles, while makers of Russian “shampanskoye” may continue to use that term alone.

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