The oldest vineyard quality ranking system in the world is Bordeaux’s 1855 Classification.
It was in the late 1600s, about a century and a half before Bordeaux’s 1855 Classification, in Hungary’s famous Tokaj-Hegyalja (TOKE-eye hedge-AL-ya) region that the first system for ranking wine on the basis of quality was developed. The Tokaj region produces both dry and sweet wines, but it is the lusciously honeyed wine Tokaji Aszú for which it is world-famous. Indeed, Tokaji Aszú has been called “the Sauternes of eastern Europe,” but perhaps the phrase should be reversed and Sauternes should be called “the Tokaji Aszú of France,” since it was in the 17th century in the Tokaj region, not Sauternes, that the world’s first sweet, botrytized wines were made. Not long after those first Tokaji Aszus were made, Hungarian Prince Rákóczi issued a royal decree assigning the vineyards of Tokaj rankings of first, second, and third class, using the Latin designations Primae Classis, Secunde Classis, and so on. In addition, two vineyards, Csarfas and Mézes Mály, were given a special designation, a sort of super-first-class status called Pro Mensa Caesaris Primus, or “chosen for the royal table.” In total, 173 vineyards were classified, and others that were not particularly well-sited were listed as unclassified. Throughout much of the forty-year Communist regime in Hungary from 1949 to 1989, with vineyards in poor condition, the classification system was largely meaningless. But in 1995, the top producers of Tokaji formed an association called Tokaj Renaissance, with the goal of reviving the significance of the old classification system. And finally, as an important aside, Bordeaux’s 1855 Classification system did not rank vineyards. It ranked estates.