When LP Hartley described the past as another country, where they do things differently, he was almost right. The past is another county, and that county is Cumbria.
In many respects, the Lake District is the past. A place with sweetshops. A place with milk in bottles. A place where the local hardware shop offers a selection – a selection, mind you – of replacement walking stick ferrules. And a place where, on a recent familial visit, I found a bottle of Piat d’Or.
There is something irresistible about brands from our past, about Spangles and Mateus Rosé, Angel Delight and Tiffin bars. Is it that we want to see if things remain the same? Is it that we want to test them against our now more experienced, grown-up palates? Or is it the simple lure of nostalgia, what Mad Men’s Don Draper described as “a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone”?
Wine-drinking in the UK was built upon brands like Piat d’Or and Hirondelle, which have largely disappeared from winesellers in the capital. When customers were frightened of varieties and vintages, they were reassured by slogans like “It’s about as likely as a duff bottle of Hirondelle”. Nowadays, that slogan would only serve to emphasise the blend’s mechanical production. And equally unlikely within that consistency was a really good bottle of Hirondelle.
Some of these brands, particularly whites, are forever being “relaunched” for the new, wine-literate market. I tried for some time last summer to find a bottle of a supposedly “relaunched” Blue Nun, but I mistakenly purchased the relaunch before last, a vile, sugary white which left my teeth carpeted.
So there was a certain element of nostalgic excitement in discovering that, in the Lake District at least, you can still buy a bottle of Piat d’Or red for just £4.95.
Sadly, this is not quite the Piat d’Or of our youth. Launched in 1978, it went through its own “relaunch” in 2001. Despite its French name, and an ad campaign which insisted that “The French adore le Piat d’Or”, the French had actually never heard of the stuff. So in 2001, it was decided that the whole French connection should be abandoned. “France and the French are no longer aspirational,” said their marketing manager at the time, which will come as news to wine buyers in China and Hong Kong today.
How French is Piat d’Or, anyway? It does declare it is produit de France, but the label also reveals it is actually bottled in Italy. And its description is printed in English, French and German, a rare opportunity these days to see these three European cultures in accord on a document.
The original label did have a subtle reference to France, through the fact that it was gold (“d’Or”, duh…). Ironically, having discarded this little linguistic Gallic echo, they seem instead to have tried to copy the work of Fabien Baron. He’s a US art director who, they may not have realised, is originally… French. Still, their imitation fails badly; the Piat d’Or label now just resembles the random typography of a ransom note.
(One thing I did not attempt was to pour the wine in the manner depicted on the label. This seems to involve slopping the wine into some kind of tsunami in the glass, and would almost certainly result in a tablecloth resembling a butcher’s apron.)
The “rebranded” Piat d’Or declares its grape variety, which frankly is just as well. Initially it has a strong blackcurranty nose, but like that first fragrant opening of a jar of instant coffee, this is utterly misleading. The bouquet, and indeed any taste of fruit, vanishes pronto, leaving only a nasty, brackish aftertaste from the alcohol. It’s a bland, watery, unpleasant drink, which may once have succeeded in a market unfamiliar with wine if only because we didn’t know how wine should taste. Not only would I challenge anyone to say in a blind test that this was a merlot, I would challenge them to say it was wine.
But perhaps there was something reassuring about finding it at all. The rest of the country may have moved on, but as with a display of walking stick ferrules, the presence of Piat d’Or may reflect the comforting refusal of Lake District retailing to discard the attitudes of the past.
Indeed, one of my family asked if there was any chance of the local supermarket’s wine buyer getting in some Cloudy Bay? No, he said, demonstrating a misunderstanding of the whole idea of modern retailing. “There’s no point. It sells out as soon as we get it in.”