News & Insights

Bitter taste left for Italian balsamic vinegar producers after ECJ ruling

Francesca Lombardi in our Commercial & Technology/IP team, summarises the recent ECJ ruling concerning a protected ‘geographical indication.’

A protected geographical indication (PGI) mark is used to designate a product which comes from a particular place, region, or country and has at least one characteristic attributable to its geographical origin.

‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena’ has been a protected geographical indication since 2009, but the ECJ has recently decided that the PGI protection does not apply to the use of the adjective ‘balsamico’ or ‘balsamic’ on its own.

Balsamic vinegar is famous for its origins in Modena in northern Italy.  To produce the distinctive bitter-sweet flavour, specific variations of seasoned and partially fermented grapes are aged in wooden barrels for several years.  This method results in a high-quality product and is a reason for its worldwide popularity and its domination in the vinegar industry.  Balsamic vinegar does not actually contain balsam, the oily aromatic substance from which its name derives.  The Italian adjective ‘balsamico’ in fact merely means ‘balsam-like’ and therefore does not mean that the vinegar must contain balsam.  The adjective has, however, become highly associated with this type of vinegar – so much so that it was recently argued that the word alone should be entitled to PGI protection.

Italian vinegar producers sought to enforce Commission Regulation No. 583/2009 and stop BALEMA GmbH, a German company, from using the name ‘Balsamico’ and ‘Deutscher balsamico’ to market its products.  The basis of their argument was simple: BALEMA must cease to use the word ‘balsamico’ because they are outside the specific geographical area permitted to use it.

After much deliberation, the Court concluded that the protection of the entire name ‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena’ does not extend to the use of the individual words or non-geographical components like ‘Aceto,’ ‘Balsamico,’ and ‘Aceto Balsamico.’  These adjectives, they concluded, are commonly used outside the region to refer to vinegar with a bitter-sweet flavour.  The individual words were found to be generic and unprotected.

Italian vinegar producers criticised the ruling, with a statement from the President of the Consortium for Protection of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena suggesting that the judgment will help other European countries to appropriate the success of the Modena brand.  In the U.K., although the country’s departure from the European Union may encourage more focus on “buying British,” the balsamic-vinegar decision acts as a reminder to all regional food and drink producers seeking to derive value from the geographical aspect of their products that PGI protection only goes so far.