How to Choose a Great New Year’s Champagne

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Philippe de Crespi is co-owner of Canaille, a well-loved neighborhood French bistro in Brooklyn, N.Y. Before opening Canaille, de Crespi traded wines in the Hamptons and helped clients choose from among 500 Champagnes at The Bubble Lounge in Manhattan. We caught up with de Crespi to learn a bit more about bubbly.

Before we enjoy a glass of New Year's bubbly, what are some things we should know?

Champagne is a wine, so treat it as a wine. In France, it's considered the wine of celebration. A French household always has a minimum of one bottle in the fridge 24 hours a day/7 days a week, 365 days a year. The French pop Champagne for anything, any reason to celebrate.

When a baby is born, the French bring a bottle of Champagne to the hospital. As soon as the baby comes out, they pop Champagne, give it to the mom, the nurses, and on the lips of the baby. We're not as uptight as in America.

There are a lot of great quotes about Champagne. Napoleon said, "Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it."

What should a person look for in a good Champagne?

You're looking for richness, creaminess, yeastiness and toastiness. 2000 has been the best vintage since 1990.

My favorite Champagnes are blanc to blanc, 100% chardonnay grapes. My favorite house is Salon. Eugene Aime Salon, who started it, was born in Champagne. He liked the good life, so he moved to Paris, then to New York in the 1920s, during the Belle Epoch. He made a fortune in New York in the fur business, and returned to Champagne to make a grand cru Champagne using the best Chardonnay grapes.

Salon only makes Champagne in the best years; if it's an average year they will sell the grapes to another house. They only make one or two vintages a decade.

The great prestige cuvees, like Dom Perignon or Cristal, are not made every year. Champagnes can be non-vintage, vintage or prestige cuvee, which are supposedly only made only on the good years.

Do you have any insider tips for buying Champagne?

You have to be careful when you buy expensive Champagne; there are good and bad years. Go to erobertparker.com, winesearcher.com or winespectator.com to find a review of the vintage. Look for a rating and a price, then compare price. Winesearcher.com is the best site to find wine in America. Everyone who sells wine is there.

Champagne rose is a touch more elegant and classy. If you are celebrating a very big occasion, get the top cuvee and get it in rose; it's even better.

What's the priciest bottle of Champagne you've sold?

At The Bubble Lounge we had a 2000 Roederer Cristal methusalem, which is equivalent to eight bottles.

In 2000, all the Champagne houses designed special bottles for the millennium. Cristal filled their bottle with a 1990 vintage, which was a fantastic year. The bottles were sold to 2,000 customers for $2,000, which was a very good price. It came in a big wood box, with your name engraved in a brass plate. The bottles immediately went for $10,000 online. They're probably worth $20,000 today.

The most expensive bottle I sold was a 1990 rose from Cristal. It was $3,600.

Prosecco seems to have taken over in the sparkling wine category; what's your take on this Champagne alternative?

Prosecco is an Italian version of sparkling; in Spain, it's Cava. It's very simple. Champagne is expensive because the dollar has fallen. The world market has changed, people all over the world have money these days, not just Americans. You have rich South Americans, Russians; so there is more demand for Champagne around the world. It's more expensive because there is more demand than supply.

With the economic crisis, people are going for Prosecco and Cava. Some are good, they are refreshing -- but nothing will be as good as a great Champagne.

At Per Se, they are decanting Champagne. What do you think about this trend?

I've seen it done before. A few months ago, there was a sale by Zachy's for very old Champagne vintages from the 1940s, '50s and '60s that were being sold for thousands of dollars. A new trend is collecting old Champagne. If kept well, they can age 30 to 40 years.

Are there any little-known Champagne houses that you recommend?

Philipponnat is not famous, but makes great Champagne. They make a prestige cuvee called Le Clos des Goisses. Most people don't know about it.

In France, all the greatest wine makers are going biodynamic. It takes 10 years for the government to say you're organic, and even more time to become biodynamic. Jacques Selosse is one of the premier biodynamic Champagne makers today.

What will you be serving at your restaurant for New Year's?

I serve a non-vintage called Chapuy, which is one of the best values I've found in small growers. I don't do mass-produced Champagne like Veuve Cliquot. I want Champagne that's made with love.

I might pop my Dom Perignon 1998, 1996 grand dame. I have Cristal 2000. You can pop it for $750. It was rated 98 by Robert Parker.

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