Elderflower drink bursts the champagne bubble

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Champagne corks popped outside the High Court in London yesterday, but not a drop of alcohol was in sight.

A year-long battle by a Surrey farming family to market a sparkling soft drink as elderflower champagne ended in victory when the court dismissed a passing-off action by the powerful French champagne industry. It was a historic defeat for the jealously protective French producers, who have sued dozens of companies for using their trade name. They plan to appeal against the decision.

The judge, Sir Mervyn Davies, ruled that although the presentation of the elderflower drink - in champagne-style bottles with wired corks - amounted to misrepresentation, the risk of damage to the reputation of genuine bubbly was 'nil or minimal'.

Guy and Sheila Woodall, directors of Thorncroft Vineyard, had argued that 'only a moron in a hurry' could mistake for real champagne the traditional country drink which they produce at Highlands Farm in Leatherhead and sell through health food shops at pounds 2.45 a bottle.

Spraying passers-by outside the Law Courts with elderflower champagne, an ecstatic Mr Woodall said: 'The spirit of Agincourt lives on. We always maintained that we were not a threat to the champagne houses and we have now been vindicated. It's astonishing that they were frightened of us in the first place.'

The champagne growers, led by Taittinger, had sought a permanent injunction against use of their appellation, arguing that it was restricted to wines made in the Champagne district of France. They were ordered to pay costs estimated at pounds 100,000.

Malcolm McIntyre, director of the Champagne Bureau, said: 'We are very disappointed, but we won't give up. This sort of thing is the thin end of the wedge.'

The industry has successfully seen off past usurpers, launching 64 challenges in England alone since 1960. It has won actions against Spanish and German fizzy wine producers and prevented Babycham from marketing 'champagne perry'.

Thorncroft argued that elderflower champagne was a well-known name for a old English beverage which dates back centuries. It began selling the drink - made from elderflowers, citric acid, lemon and sugar, after a recipe devised by Mr Woodall's grandmother - in late 1991.

But there was no Dom Perignon on ice at Highlands Farm last night. Mr Woodall dislikes French champagne and claims that his aversion predates the court case. 'I won't have it in the house,' he said. 'I think it's very overrated.'

(Photograph omitted)