French pour scorn on Surrey 'bubbly'

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The Independent Online
THE JUDGE picked up the bottle of elderflower champagne and scrutinised it from several angles. Deep in thought, he placed it on the bench in front of him and contemplated it from a distance.

The question exercising Sir Mervyn Davies was whether shoppers could confuse this non-alcoholic country drink, sold in health food shops for pounds 2.35 a bottle, with genuine bubbly.

The French champagne industry believes so and yesterday began a passing-off action in the High Court to prevent a small vineyard in Leatherhead, Surrey, from describing its product as champagne. The French maintain that Thorncroft Vineyards sought to cash in on the reputation associated with the name.

Guy Woodall, owner of Thorncroft, argues that elderflower champagne - which he began to produce a year ago from his grandmother's recipe - is a well-known description of an English drink dating from medieval times. He has enlisted the support of his local MP, the former Cabinet minister Kenneth Baker, who has complained to the European Commission about this 'direct attack on one small but none the less popular aspect of our nation's cultural heritage'.

Charles Sparrow QC, for the champagne house Taittinger and the industry association, said the history of elderflower champagne was irrelevant since the old recipes referred only to beverages for domestic consumption. 'These home-made drinks have never been commercialised,' he said.

In any event, Thorncroft did not produce the traditional drink - made from elderflower petals, citric acid, lemon and sugar - since it was carbonated, not fermented, he said.

He scoffed at reports which portrayed elderflower champagne as a 'noble beverage', which was 'part of every free- born Englishman's birthright'.

Mr Sparrow pointed to the champagne-style wired cork, the shape of the offending bottle and the prominence of the word champagne on the label. 'This was quite plainly a considered and deliberate adoption of the name champagne as well as these features,' he said. Shoppers might believe that French champagne growers were producing an alcohol-free alternative, and there was also the risk of the misconception that the two products were commercially connected.

The case follows an interim injunction obtained last April by the champagne growers, who say that English law has long recognised the principle of restricting the name to the 85,000-acre Champagne region north-east of Paris.

The case continues today.

(Photograph omitted)