French company Champagne Louis Roederer (CLR) first created the Cristal brand back in 1876 at the request of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. The champagne is sold in a distinctive, transparent crystal glass bottle with a flat bottom, requested by the Tsar amidst a fraught political climate to reduce the risk of would-be assassins hiding explosives in the base indentation of more common bottle shapes. The most explosive thing to happen to Cristal lately is that it has sued a Spanish company making and selling sparkling wine in the UK under the brand name Cristalino.

Cristal is a well-known brand in the luxury champagne market, selling at upwards of £175 per bottle off licence, and considerably more in restaurants and bars. Around half a million bottles are produced every year (compared with around 7.5 million bottles of Dom Pérignon), and in some years no bottles at all if the harvest is not of a sufficiently high standard. This gives the Cristal brand an aura of luxury and exclusivity not enjoyed by more mass market champagnes.

CLR sued the manufacturer of Cristalino cava back in 2010, claiming that consumers would be confused into thinking that Cristalino was in some way connected with Cristal, but also - due to the reputation of the Cristal brand - that the Cristalino product took unfair advantage of, and was detrimental to, the distinctive character or repute of Cristal.

Supermarket retailers Asda and Morrisons both stocked Cristalino and were also sued by CLR. They settled the case, but proceedings against the manufacturer continued (and were not defended in any meaningful way). Judgment was handed down in early October 2015, and was a resounding victory for CLR.

The history and repute of Cristal were undoubtedly key factors. The brand has been sold in the UK since 1949 with around 40,000 bottles sold here every year. Although this amounts to less than 0.5 percent of the UK champagne market, the court held that Cristal enjoyed a significant reputation due to press and media exposure of the brand.

Survey evidence adduced by CLR showed that many consumers (most of whom were unlikely ever to have bought or even tasted the Cristal brand) still recognised the name as a brand of champagne. The court was particularly influenced by a 2006 story in the British newspaper 'The Mail on Sunday' describing the dilemma faced by an elite London club when they ran out of Cristal champagne just before the visit of some wealthy patrons. A private jet was flown to a club member's home in the South of France to collect some of his own stock. The article noted that the Cristal brand had been adopted as a status symbol by US rappers and other wealthy individuals. It is also the seventh most frequently mentioned brand in song lyrics (Cadillac is first).

Overall, the judge was impressed by the volume of press coverage generated by the Cristal brand, given the tiny proportion of the UK champagne market it occupied.

In short

In terms of trade mark infringement, the court held that there was a likelihood of confusion between Cristal and Cristalino - consumers would quite possibly assume that the latter was a brand extension of the former, perhaps being the diminutive 'second wine' in a family (such as Le Petit Cheval and Château Cheval Blanc), or a cheaper alternative produced by CLR.

The court held that use of the Cristalino mark would result in dilution and detriment to the distinctiveness of the Cristal brand, particularly when used in relation to cheap cava. The later brand would also be free-riding on the reputation of Cristal: evidence from several sources, including social media sites, showed consumers drinking Cristalino and jokingly pretending that it was Cristal, thereby benefitting Cristalino by associating it with the more prestigious product.

Case details at a glance

  • Jurisdiction: England and Wales
  • Decision level: High Court of Justice Chancery Division Intellectual Property
  • Parties: Champagne Louis Roederer v J Garcia Carrion SA, Asda Stores Limited and WM Morrison Supermarkets Plc
  • Citation: [2015] EWHC 2760 (Ch)
  • Date: 06 October 2015
  • Full decision: http://dycip.com/cristalvcristalino

This article was first published in Spear's: http://dycip.com/cristalvscristalino