10 May 2024 / Edit Szabó / Translated by Vera Szűcs-Balás Copy actual URL Facebook share Twitter share

"I am proud of what I have achieved so far" - conversation with Szarka Dénes, winemaker from Mád

A small estate, guest house, and wine bar producing good wines. The balanced operation of the three units provides a solid foundation, and guests love the small estate in Mád, called Szarkaláb Bistro, where the owner, Dénes Szarka, personally takes orders. Edit Szabó interviewed him...

It seems you are attached to Mád. Did you grow up here?

Indeed. My roots lie here. Even my grandparents were from Mád, and although we're not a typical winemaking dynasty, they made wine and they even had a small wine-tasting area. It was something I was born into, playing hide and seek in the barrels as a child, like most local kids.

 

Did your parents continue what your grandparents started?

They didn't make wine, they just grew grapes, like almost everyone else around here under socialism. At that time, the price of grapes was good, you could buy a Ladas with a better harvest. But after the change of regime everything changed, and viticulture was no longer profitable. My father slowly started to reduce the land, but then I came along.

 

From the hospitality side, if I remember correctly...

I graduated in Miskolc, at the Berzeviczy Gergely Catering Vocational School, and I worked as a waiter in the Sárga Borház Restaurant (lit. Yellow Wine House). Thanks to Disznókő Winery I had the opportunity to taste some very serious wines and I became increasingly drawn to this world. I delved into wine textbooks, learned a lot, everything interested me. I felt that Tokaj had great potential, and in 2004 - the third in the municipality - I opened a small guesthouse in Mád. It went well, many people came to visit us, but the first question on everyone's lips was whether they could taste our wine. My grandfather's old press was still around, so I took a deep breath and started making my own wines. At the age of twenty-six, in 2005, I came out with my first vintage.

 

Back then, in the early 2000s, there were already some excellent winemakers to look up to in the Tokaj Wine Region. Who did you see as an example to follow?

In my opinion, István Szepsy laid the foundations, and I think it was thanks to him that quality winemaking started in the wine region. He showed a direction that was worth following.

 

From whom did you get encouragement, help, advice?

László Alkonyi, who was the editor-in-chief of Borbarát Magazin at the time, gave me a big push when I started, and continued to taste my wines regularly afterwards. His opinion helped a lot, but otherwise I didn't really have anyone to turn to for advice. There was no winemaker who would take a newcomer under his wing and tell him how to make wine.

 

But can you tell someone how to make wine?

I don't think so. If you're unsure about something and you ask five winemakers, you're bound to get five different answers to your question. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't listen to other people's opinions, but you have to believe in your own intuition and follow your own path. For example, I'm going to plant a vineyard now. I've never planted vine before. I asked three winegrowers what kind of vines I should work with and they all said different things. This shows that there is never a single truth in viticulture and winemaking.

 

What are you planting?

Furmint and Sárgamuskotály. We're establishing two plots in the Sarkad vineyard. I have a fondness for old vineyards, so deciding to cut and replant that area wasn't easy, but it was necessary given its outdated farming practices. In total, we have three and a half hectares across six vineyards in Mád.

 

Six vineyards? That must be quite challenging...

Indeed, it's no small feat. It took me over 20 years to establish this estate, and new vineyards kept presenting themselves. Szilvás was the first, and we built from there. To produce aszú and sweet wine, having a plot in the Danczka vineyard is essential, as botrytis appears there almost every year. So when an opportunity arose to acquire land there, I didn't hesitate. As dry wines became more prominent, I had to seek out stonier terrain, leading me to Juharos. Then, with the venture into sparkling wines, I purchased a small vineyard in Mád's coolest spot, Sarkad. My most recent addition is a few rows in the Betsek vineyard, acquired just last year. On top of these, I also procure a hectare of vines from a friend, allowing me to produce 10-12 thousand bottles of wine annually.

 

Do you plan to expand?

Not in terms of quantity, but rather in quality. My goal is to offer the most distinctive wines possible. The majority of our grapes come from old vines, ranging from 30 to 60 years old, and we prioritize wines produced with strict yield limits. Although I don't advertise it on the bottle, we have been officially certified since 2016.

 

You mentioned buying land in the Sarkad vineyard specifically for sparkling wine production. Is sparkling wine production in Tokaj that significant?

I believe it's increasingly important. I offer two types of bubbly wines: Mádzoo, which is made with added carbon dioxide, and bottle-fermented sparkling wine. I mastered the latter during my tenure at Pelle Cellar, but upon leaving, I lacked the necessary technology. Fortunately, a competition provided an opportunity, and I successfully entered, enabling me to craft my own sprakling wines without compromise. It's a costly endeavor, but the rewards justify the investment over time. Currently, our cellar produces 1000 bottles of sparkling wine, but it's insufficient. I aspire to double that output in the future, affording me the chance to experiment further and prolong the aging process.

 

What about still wines?

From the outset, I've been passionate about preserving the authenticity of origin. Although I'm not a member of the Mád Circle, I've been instrumental in implementing new trademark markings on bottles. My Mád Furmint represents a commune-level wine, denoted as Mád Origin Control (MOC), while my Juharos vineyard-selection Furmint and Hárslevelű are classified as Mád Dűlő Origin Control (MDOC). Betsek will soon join them. Whether enjoying a slice of cheese or a glass of wine anywhere in the world, there's always an origin label on valuable products. Many overlook its significance, but I find it paramount and see vast potential therein. Additionally, I craft a late-harvest cuvée wine — a blend of Furmint, Sárgamuskotály and Hárslevelű. In 2022, we introduced a sweet, full-bodied Szamorodni from 100% Furmint, the first from our cellar. However, our crowning glory remains the 6-puttonyos aszú.

 

Does that 10-12 thousand bottles of wine a year support a family?

No. I've always had at least one, but preferably two jobs in the last twenty years. We sell our own wine very well in our guesthouse, and in 2020 we opened the Szarkaláb Bistro, where we offer not only wine but also food made mainly with local or regional ingredients. This is the only way to make this business sustainable, the only way to afford some improvements and modernisation, because there is no question of keeping up with the needs of the times.

 

The colour scheme of the bistro is good: the curtains, the trellises, the chairs, the covers and even the cushions are blue. Who dreamed it up?

It's all my wife Enikő's doing, she has a very good sense of how to make an environment feel like home. She took care of every little detail, I love the terrace, and the guests praise it. It's true that we are only open on Fridays and Saturdays, but it's worth booking a table as we are almost always full.

 

Serving the food, offering the wine is your job. You're also at home in this world, having trained in the restaurant of Sárga Borház and later the now defunct Gusteau Culinary Experience. But who's in the kitchen?

Gergely Kósa is the chef, with whom I used to work at Gusteau, and then he was the head chef at the now also defunct First Mádi Wine House. We find a great common voice. It's important to emphasise that this is a wine kitchen focused on local ingredients, so we dream up the food to go with the wines, it's understandable, it's tasty, but of course we always put a twist on it.

 

You opened at the time of COVID. Were you not worried?

I wasn't thinking bistro at the beginning! I set this place up specifically to have somewhere to hold my smaller tastings, but it always turned out that people who tasted wanted to eat, and one step led to another.

 

What is your favourite wine and food pairing?

The great classic, which is mainly on our winter menu: duck liver terrine with sweet wine. I think sweet wine is a very good accompaniment to savoury dishes, but few people experiment with it yet.

 

What has been your greatest gastronomic experience in your life?

Gábor Horváth, chef de cuisine at Gusteau, made me a stir-fried marrow and served it with a Thai sauce. We served this with a late-harvest Sárgamuskotály. It was a sumptuous composition.

 

Many people are concerned about the shrinking market for sweet wines. Is that your experience too?

Unfortunately, yes, but my optimism remains unbroken. I believe in sweet wine, and we know that fashion changes. Just like the pleated skirt has made a comeback, sweet wines will also have their renaissance. However, it's not such a big problem if we don't wait idly but take action for it.

 

Mád is one of the prominent towns in the wine region, the home of emblematic wineries. Where do you fit into this big picture?

I hope to be one of the small but important cogs. The trio of the cellar, guesthouse, and bistro provides exactly what the guests demand, and soon we'll open our new apartment building on Rákóczi Street. We're setting up a press house on the ground floor, an "adult playground" where we'll hold wine tastings and dinners, and on the upper floor, there will be three apartments available for our guests. Once this is completed, I look to the future with optimism.

 

When do you relax?

Sunday afternoon. I work six and a half days a week, but my Sunday afternoons are sacred and inviolable. I understand that there's a lack of leisure time in the system, but I trust that there will be a solution for that too. Otherwise, I'm proud of what I've achieved so far; my wines are appreciated by both the industry and wine-loving audiences, I have many returning guests, and so far, there haven't been any complaints about the service. Is there anything more I could ask for?

 

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