Tokaj: Hungary and Slovakia In The Battle For The Protection of The Name

Authors: Reda Zaboliene, Managing Partner, Attorney-at-Law, Patent Attorney in METIDA,  Kristina Vilkiene, Assistant Attorney-at-Law in METIDA

 zemelapisAlthough Tokaj wine is customarily known as the Hungary’s pride, Slovakia also has the right for the production of the wines with such name as the name of Tokaj wine has originated from the Tokaj region located in the border region between Hungary and Slovakia.

Based on the agreement between Hungary and Slovakia, Slovakia has been authorized to apply the name of the wine brand in the Slovak language: Tokajsky, Tokajske, Tokajska. However, in the wake of the dispute over the size of the region belonging to each country, Hungary has revoked the agreement and altered the name of the wine brand from Tokaji to Tokaj. As Slovakia registered the name of the designation of origin Vinohradnícka oblast Tokaj as protected in the European Union, the dispute between the countries has been raging on over the Slovakia’s right in the precise naming for the wines manufactured in the region.

Owing to the unlawful (in Hungary’s opinion) protection applied to the term, Hungary brought an action before the General Court for the registration annulment of the term Vinohradnícka oblast Tokaj in the E-Bacchus database in respect of Slovakia. Such term was introduced by the European Commission into the electronic register of protected designations of origin and protected geographical indications for wine sector (hereinafter, E-Bacchus register) in accordance with Regulation (EC).

The Court dismissed the action brought by Hungary and stated that the registration of the term could not be annulled as the term was automatically registered as protected in the European Union under the legislation in force before this database was introduced.

At Slovakia’s request, the Commission entered the protected designation of origin Vinohradnícka oblast Tokaj into the list of quality wines produced in specific region (hereinafter, QWPSR, QWPSR – quality wines produced in specific region), announced in the Official Journals of the European Union in 2006 and 2007.

On 31 July 2009, one day before the electronic register of protected designations of origin and protected geographical indications for wine (the E-Bacchus database) came into effect, the new QWPSR list was published. At the request of Slovakia, the list incorporated the amendment of the protected designations of origin included in the previous lists. Thereby, the protected designation of origin Tokajská/Tokajské/Tokajsky vinohradnícka oblast was registered in the new list. As the E-Bacchus database replaced the publication of QWPSR lists, the indication of the designation of origin Tokajská/Tokajské/Tokajsky vinohradnícka oblast protected by the latest list was registered in the E-Bacchus database for the part of the Tokaj win-growing region located in Slovakia.

On 30 November 2009, Slovakia applied to the Commission with the request to replace the protected designation of origin Tokajská/Tokajské/Tokajsky vinohradnícka oblast kept in E-Bacchus database with another protected designation of origin Vinohradnícka oblast Tokaj. According to Slovakia, the indication Tokajská/Tokajské/Tokajsky vinohradnícka oblast was erroneously introduced into the QWPSR lists, because the term Vinohradnícka oblast Tokaj applied in the Slovak legislation had to be used in the list. As the term Vinohradnícka oblast Tokaj was really used in the Slovak legislation on the day the E-Bacchus database came into effect, in view of the Slovakia’s request, the Commission changed information in the database.

However, Hungary opposed such an alteration by indicating that the latest Slovak law on wines approved on 30 June 2009 (the law entered into force on 1 September 2009, after the introduction of the E-Bacchus database) used the term Tokajská vinohradnícka oblast.

After examination of the Hungarian action, the Court stated in its judgement that wine names protected under EU law in force before the E-Bacchus database was introduced are automatically protected under the legislation since that database was introduced. The introduction of the database has not therefore changed the nature of the protection granted to those wine names, with the result that the protection granted did not depend on the registration of those names in the database. That registration is merely the result of the automatic transition, from one regulatory regime to another, of protection that has already been granted and is not a condition for the grant of that protection.

The Court also noted that the protection granted to wine names under EU law in force before the E-Bacchus database was introduced was based on the wine names as determined by national legislation of the Member States. That protection did not therefore result from an autonomous Community procedure. In that regard, on the day that the E-Bacchus database was introduced, the Slovak legislation in force and the Community protection of wine names, so far as the part of the Tokaj wine-growing region located in Slovakia is concerned, included only the name Vinohradnícka oblast Tokaj. In other words, the Court stated that, regardless of the incorrect publication of the designation of origin to be protected in the Official Journal, it was indicated correctly in the relevant Slovak legislation in force until the introduction of the E-Bacchus database. It means that the name Vinohradnícka oblast Tokaj enjoyed protection in the EU before it was registered in the E-Bacchus database, as alteration of the mechanism for the publication of the protected names is not capable of producing legal effects regarding the protection of the names.

In the given circumstances, the Court dismissed the action brought by Hungary as inadmissible. Hungary brought an appeal before the European Court of Justice against the decision of the General Court.

The information is prepared according to Court of Justice of the European Union.

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