The Saumagen Legend: Remembering Bernd Philippi, Pfalz, Germany

For many years, no other person embodied the Palatinate as much as Bernd Philippi, a tall, chain-smoking volcano who could be heard coughing, ranting, laughing and lecturing from afar. He was a real bon vivant and was more attached to wine than almost anyone else, and especially to the Palatinate, to which he himself has erected numerous monuments, presented in brown mallet bottles filled with Rieslings from the Kallstadter Saumagen, his favorite vineyard, which emerged from a quarry and nestles into the landscape like a Saumagen. “Pure limestone, a really great terroir,” he used to say and poured right away: Saumagen Kabinett trocken, then the Saumagen Spätlese trocken, the Spätlese trocken R, the Auslese trocken, the Auslese trocken R and only in very great vintages also the Saumagen Auslese trocken RR (“double R”). The tasting glasses were small compared to those used today and are hardly ever used by cellar masters. Philippi had no others. “These will do,” he said, hardly lingering long with his nose, which was there only to check the wine for faults. Then he took a mouthful of Saumagen, swirled it noisily but not for long through his mouth, swallowed and let the wine linger for a long time, still holding the glass in the air, as if he might not put it down again until the last note had faded. When Bernd Philippi tasted wine, he conducted. And gave numerous encores.
Bernd Philippi back in 2006 (Photo by Andreas Durst)

The series was always long here at Koehler-Ruprecht, the Kallstadt family winery that Philippi had sold to his biggest fans in the U.S. about 10 years ago, since he himself had no successors in the world. In Dominik Sona, he installed his successor in good time, a kind of young Philippi, also a bon vivant, a friendly one at that, whom nothing, not even Philippi himself, is capable of upsetting. “He's lazy,” Philippi told me behind closed doors shortly after the handover. As if he were talking about a wayward son. It was about one or two plots in the Saumagen that were up for sale, right next to Koehler-Ruprecht's pieces. When his old business didn't strike, he did. For a few small barrels a year, private consumption, so to speak. He wanted to vinify and develop the new Saumagen Rieslings from the original Saumagen at the friendly Knipser’s in neighboring Laumersheim. With Stephan Knipser, he founded the Saumagen Riesling company in 2013. The wine came into the market only after some years, whereby market is a big word. The wines go to the most loyal Philippi fans, many of them to Norway. In Germany, too, they have hardly been seen, although there are some merchants who sell Philippi's and Knipser's Saumagen Rieslings, but here, too, rather inconspicuously and possibly only to the best customers. They came and come on the market as Spätlese or Auslese trocken, in outstanding vintages also as R-version. The Koehler-Ruprecht cursive has remained, but it has been modernized and brought up over the entire label. Instead of the proud VDP eagle with its outstretched wings, a crashing bird adorns the capsule as well as the label. Philippi—anything but an avowed friend of the Grosses Gewächs and the accompanying renunciation of the (not chaptalized but “natural”) dry Prädikatswein—thought that this was not a falling dead eagle, but a raven. And lit up a Marlboro…  

Bernd had a sense of humor. But he could also get angry.  

When I was allowed to taste, describe and evaluate Philippi's considerable collection of Henri Jayer’s Burgundy grand cru for the German wine magazine FINE more than a decade ago, he got upset after publication in a circle of fellow winemakers. “Stephan Reinhardt? Only gave my Cros Parantoux from Jayer 91 points. But a year earlier he gave 94 points for the Kräuterberg from Meyer-Näkel! 94 points!” 

94 points for Werner Näkel, who once went to Jayer and put his own Pinot Noir from the Ahr on the table for the friendly gentleman with the slider cap. A Kabinett trocken from a spooky vintage like 1984 or 1987, which was “at least 100% aged in new barrels,” as Werner once told me with tears in his laughing eyes. Which did not make the wine any better. Nonetheless, Jayer praised even the first German attempts at Pinot Noir. Bernd Philippi also produced Pinot Noir (“Philippi”), and it could be truly great in some years, also the eponymous Chardonnay. Sometimes, however, these wines from the Kallstadt limestone fell apart all too quickly. Anyway, Philippi had a cellar full of Jayer. From the value we had tasted at that time alone, Philippi could possibly have bought himself eternal refreshment. But that didn't interest him. He enjoyed drinking and oysters. When he celebrated his 60th birthday on the Douro, he praised the party the next day. “Respect, people. You drank 400 bottles of Quinta das Muralhas yesterday!” For his 70th birthday, he promised his closest friends a journey around the globe. It would certainly have been a feast that even the ancient Greeks couldn't have managed more raucous. 

But it did not come to that anymore. Philippi did not have very good final years. He now had to pay tribute to his baroque or hedonistic lifestyle. Until the end, however, he tasted the Saumagen Rieslings from the joint project with Stephan Knipser. And woe betide him if he didn't taste any lime! Lime was the most important thing to him. It is the soul of Saumagen.  

And, so, back to Koehler-Ruprecht and Sona. I am very grateful to Bernd Philippi that he chose this and no other lazy dog as his successor, because he could hardly have found a better one in the world. Hardly ever has a family business completed the sale or even the generation change so unscathed and so seamlessly as this one. The Koehler-Ruprecht legend lives on—albeit mainly in the USA—and all Saumagen and Philippi fans should be very happy about this. Philippi could also always rely on his fans since he did not advertise. Those who came, came and drank and loaded their trunks. And for the particularly concentrated and profound wines with the “R” that were only marketed after some years in bottle, he had a reservation list, which he admittedly never called off as soon as the corresponding wine was available, the Auslese RR, for example, only after seven years. His customers had to keep up with the dates themselves, and if they didn't, which rarely happened, someone else took the wine. Philippi had no trouble arguing, and he had enough wine anyway. He put whole baskets on the table for me. And when I thought I was finished, he would fetch the older vintages... 

After my first visit to the winery about 23 years ago, it was clear to me that after Koehler-Ruprecht (as well as Knipser, by the way), I had better not have a second appointment, except the one with a couch. In the Vinho Verde region in Portugal, where we also met to visit the Quinta do Carvalhosa founded with Bernhard Breuer (Rheingau) and Werner Näkel (Ahr) on the Douro, we drank five bottles of Quinta das Muralhas Vinho Verde at noon, and then at night, accompanied by red wine and cigar, we sounded the Douro Valley over the outside boxes with Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries… 

In recent years, Bernd Philippi has not been well. Medical advice he took benevolently, but the recommended life was just not his. In June, Bernd Philippi died at the age of 72. A few days later, I drank one of Bernd's greatest Saumagen vintages—the 2004 Saumagen Auslese trocken R—with his old buddy Werner Knipser and his son, Stephan, Bernd’s younger buddy and Saumagen Riesling company partner. Of Koehler-Ruprecht’s Saumagens, some are among the greatest dry Rieslings ever produced on planet wine, most notably the 1990 (which would have deserved 100 points) but also the 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004. Bernd’s wines, aged in old, large oval wood casks (stück and halbstück), were like himself: full-bodied, powerful and very generous, with plenty of fruit ripeness and great richness, but also tightly woven and definitely firm in the tannins. Old-fashioned in the best sense, but always silky, openhearted and life-affirming. In them, as in the Kallstadter Saumagen, which was to receive Bernd’s ashes, Bernd Philippi will live forever. 

After my return from the Pfalz, I opened Bernd’s 2002 Riesling Brut, a sparkling Sekt that was released after 10 years and aged in my private cellar for another decade. Bernd has never been a Sekt drinker. “Sekt is for the ladies,” he used to say. But with this almost 21-year-old, fabulously young-at-heart sparkling wine from the refuse of the house of Koehler-Ruprecht, I toast you, dear Bernd. And I would rather have done it sitting across from you, smoking if you like. 

Well, next time.

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