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Balsamic vinegar does not necessarily have to originate from Italy - The scope of protection of geographical indications (PGI/PDO) and its limits

The more than 3,300 geographical indications now protected in the EU have a wide scope of protection, which has been further extended by case law in recent years. In particular, one is not already on the safe side if an indication is not used in the protected form as even allusions are inadmissible. Even clarifying additions, for example concerning the actual place of manufacture of a product, do not lead away from the infringement. In a recent decision, however, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has at least shown certain limits to protection in the event that the product designation in question consists of non-geographical terms.


Protected geographical indications (PGI) and protected designations of origin (PDO) play a special role within labeling law. Through them, the place of origin and production of food and alcoholic beverages, which is not eligible for trademark protection, is kept free for those products that originate from the correspondingly designated geographical area. Unlike trademarks, there is also no owner, but the use is free to any company whose products meet the requirements of the PGI/PDO.

The geographical indications of source are entered into a register by the EU Commission in consultation with the member states. The register can be viewed online via the "eAmbrosia" database. This database, which has been established in 2019, has the advantage that, unlike before, all protected geographical indications for foodstuffs, wines and spirits are combined.

Decision of the ECJ of December 4, 2019, Case C-432/18 - Aceto Balsamico di Modena

A German company sells vinegar and labels it with the designations "Balsamico" and "Deutscher Balsamico". An Italian protection association opposed this, arguing that it was an infringement of the PGI “Aceto Balsamico di Modena”. The German Federal Supreme Court had suspended the proceedings and asked the ECJ by way of a preliminary ruling whether the non-geographical components of the PGI "Aceto Balsamico di Modena" ("Aceto", "Balsamico" or also "Aceto Balsamico") were also protected. The Court of First Instance (the Regional Court of Mannheim) had regarded the product designation "Deutscher Balsamico" as an inadmissible allusion to the PGI "Aceto Balsamico di Modena".

The ECJ has answered the question referred by the national court to the effect that the protection of the PGI does not extend to the use of the individual non-geographical terms "Aceto" and "Balsamico". The ECJ justified this partly on the grounds that, in the context of the registration of the PGI, objections from Germany and Greece had been rejected on the grounds that only the overall indication "Aceto Balsamico di Modena" was protected and not its non-geographical components. Furthermore, it is stated that, although the components of a PGI are in principle protected individually, this does not apply to components which are generic or common terms. That is precisely the case both with "aceto", the Italian word for vinegar, and with the term "balsamico", which describes a sweet and sour "balsamic" taste.


The judgment contains a welcome clarification, since it is now clear that it is not considered an inadmissible allusion to a geographic indication where it results from the use of common or generic non-geographical elements of a PGI/PDO.

However, despite this judgment extreme caution must continue to be exercised in the area of geographical indications. In this context, the case of a German whisky with the name "Glen Buchenbach", which received much media attention, should be recalled. Following a preliminary ruling of the ECJ, the Hamburg Regional Court decided that this was a misleading statement regarding the PGI "Scotch Whisky". This was justified by the fact that "Glen" (Scottish for "valley") is often included in the name of Scottish whisky producers and consumers therefore also assume that "Glen Buchenbach" is a product of Scottish origin.

Legal advice should be sought even if there are only slight indications that the own product designation could possibly affect the scope of protection of a geographical indication. In cases of doubt, one will continue to advise against its use. The protection associations watch over "their" geographical indications with Argus eyes.

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