Background Viability in a non dividing state is referred to as chronological life span (CLS). Most grape juice fermentation happens when Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast cells have stopped dividing; therefore, CLS is an important factor toward winemaking success. Results We have studied both the physical and chemical determinants influencing yeast CLS. Low pH and heat shorten the maximum wine yeast life span, while hyperosmotic shock extends it. Ethanol plays an important negative role in aging under winemaking conditions, but additional metabolites produced by fermentative metabolism, such as acetaldehyde and acetate, have also a strong impact on longevity. Grape polyphenols quercetin and resveratrol have negative impacts on CLS under winemaking conditions, an unexpected behavior for these potential anti-oxidants. We observed that quercetin inhibits alcohol and aldehyde dehydrogenase activities, and that resveratrol performs a pro-oxidant role during grape juice fermentation. Vitamins nicotinic acid and nicotinamide are precursors of NAD+, and their addition reduces mean longevity during fermentation, suggesting a metabolic unbalance negative for CLS. Moreover, vitamin mix supplementation at the end of fermentation shortens CLS and enhances cell lysis, while amino acids increase life span. Conclusions Wine S. cerevisiae strains are able to sense changes in the environmental conditions and adapt their longevity to them. Yeast death is influenced by the conditions present at the end of wine fermentation, particularly by the concentration of two-carbon metabolites produced by the fermentative metabolism, such as ethanol, acetic acid and acetaldehyde, and also by the grape juice composition, particularly its vitamin content.